Back To The Future


Is it time to at least debate whether Auckland Transport should be running part or all of Auckland’s bus services?

It won’t happen under the present Government which is in the process of going into an election campaign to signal some Government assets may be privitised.

And it was National’s Warren Cooper that spearheaded legislation 18 or so years ago that led to ARC’s Yellow Bus Company being parked under a short- lived body called the Auckland Regional Services Trust and then sold.

UK-based Stagecoach Group PLC purchased Wellington City Transport Ltd from Wellington City Council in 1992. Then it went on to purchase Cityline operations in the Hutt Valley and South Auckland, the Yellow Bus Company and a controlling interest in Fullers ferries in Auckland.

Why has the debate re-emerged?
There is a disturbing line in the Mike Lee letter to the Auckland Transport Chair about bus overcrowding - that letter published today on AKT.

In suggesting Auckland Transport may need to buy at least half a dozen buses to cope with the Northern Express overcrowding issue, the Auckland Council chair wrote:

“Given that the operator is reportedly reluctant to make further capital commitments, we ask that Auckland Transport itself consider buying a minimum number (6) of buses which would be owned by Auckland Transport in a similar way to rail rolling stock.”

Ritchies is a proudly long-running (since 1972) 100% Kiwi Ritchie family-run business. I have had only good experiences with the company’s bus fleet and have no criticism of them at all.

Its website says:

Ritchies have over 150 buses on the roads in Auckland, Blenheim, and Timaru. We are constantly adding to our fleet to cope with the increasing demand being placed on public transport. We have made a major investment into on-going driver training programmes, vehicle safety and schedule management to ensure our network continues to deliver reliable, convenient and comfortable transport for urban commuters.

If for whatever reason, the company is not in a position to order additional buses, that is understandable. They don’t come cheap.

In January, Alexander Dennis Ltd won a $51.6m tender bid to supply 120 vehicles to NZ Bus. It will partner with Tauranga-based Kiwi Bus Builders, which has been involved in building the new B Line buses. Kiwi will build the buses from kits supplied by the UK factories. The buses seat 24-40 people and include a hybrid option promising 30% reductions in fuel consumption and greenhouse gases.The first of the new vehicles will be delivered in time for the Rugby World Cup , while the rest will be progressively introduced over the following 12 months.

But the bottom line is that Auckland’s growing public transport can not be held back by private companies that do not have the financial means to keep up.

And now that public transport is on a roll, it’s a potential money spinner for whoever runs it.  We know the state of petrol prices alone will continue to drive motorists to go by bus or train in future years.

If Auckland Transport were to take it over, would that not enable the revenue to go back into developing services?  The speed of development by Auckland Transport since it began has been very impressive.

When British-owned transport giant Stagecoach took over running services in Auckland, there were endless grumbles and a suspicion -denied by the company - that the money was just getting exported back to the mothership in the UK instead of being used to develop services and buy new buses.

Just completing a very brief bullet point summary of Auckland’s bus ownership:

  • Auckland’s ARA used to run the buses. In 1964 the Auckland Regional Authority took over all the bus services run by the the Auckland Transport Board.
  • In the early 70s, the ARA stepped in and took over buses from other operators -  North Shore Transport, Suburban Buses,  Otahuhu’s Passenger Transport Company New Lynn’s Auckland Bus Company and later the Commercial Bus’ Titirangi, Green Bay and Wood Bay services.
  • In 1989 control was now by the Auckland Regional Council.
  • In 1991 Transportation Auckland Corporation Limited began trading as the Yellow Bus Company.
  • In 1996, the Yellow Bus Company bought the Whenuapai Bus Company and then sold it to Ritchies.
  • In late 2005, when Stagecoach exited, Infratil paid $252 million for it, with its subsidiary, NZ Bus, managing its public transport operations.
  • In January 2008, NZ Bus purchased Whangarei bus company, Adams, which now operates under the name Northbus.
  • In April 2009 NZ Bus sold Fullers in order to focus on its land based public transport sector.

One company running all of Auckland’s bus services in the interests of Auckland and with the same body controlling all parts of the operatio, including integrated ticketing, is an attractive option.

The key is that it could not be a return to the old days of a vision-less government department running a public service. Veolia, for all its faults, at least does have a history of running a country’s train service.

Unions have been raising the option of a return to public ownership for the past few years - certainly whenever they go on strike and get locked into a pay negotiation dispute with corproations!.

Back in 2007, during the Auckland local body election campaign, Mike Lee’s six-member Regional People ticket wanted the council to set up a “niche” bus operation to give private operators a run for the tens of millions of dollars of subsidies they receive annually from ratepayers and the Government.

They have been fired up by a revelation that annual regional bus patronage of 42.7 million passenger trips remains 5 per lower than it was in 2004, despite an almost 90 per cent increase - to $85 million - in subsidies paid to private bus companies. It would be run like Ports of Auckland was with independent directors.

But the opposing Citizens and Ratepayers team said a publicly- owned operation reminiscent of the old Yellow Bus Company would put ratepayer funds at needless risk at a time that the Government was promising legislation to give regional councils stronger bargaining positions when letting bus contracts.

It would be interesting to test the idea with the new more left-leaning Auckland council.

Finally a quiz.

Which day this week did this item about the overcrowding buses appear in the Auckland morning paper”

It’s a “wonderful problem” for Auckland bus operators: their business is growing by at least 7 per cent a year, among the highest growth in the Western world, although from an admittedly low base.

And passenger volumes are on another spurt that could take growth into double figures this year. On some main routes patronage is up by more than 20 per cent.

The surge has put a strain on services, particularly in congested rush-hour routes, but operators insist they are increasing capacity as fast as they can. For some passengers that is not fast enough.

A letter to the New Zealand Herald from Ponsonby woman Pauline McCann about problems getting on the Link inner-city service struck a chord with many. Others complain of being left behind as crowded buses go past, being crammed in the aisles, stuck in traffic on the way in and out of the city and waiting 40 minutes to an hour to catch the Link.

For an industry that has only in recent years moved out of a passenger decline stretching back to World War II, it is a bad look.

The private operators, and the councils that form the other part of the public transport picture in Auckland, admit they are struggling to catch up with passenger demand.

Answer: April 26, 2003. Almost 8 years to the day.

The article goes on to quote the Regional Council chief executive Jo Brosnahan saying the growth has been “too fast for us” and  drivers and the public complaining that the bus operators had underestimated the growth and not pushing its priority measures quickly enough.

Why are we always playing catch up with public transport in Auckland?






  1. Kurt says:

    I am hugely in favour of a return to public ownership of our public transport. Having said that not all bus companies are money gouging organisations. Birkenhead Transport is a company that has been in the business for nearly 80 years and have provided excellent services.

    But despite the negativity on public ownership the ARA had far better buses than the private companies and better services. The only negative was the militant union that tended to ruin the good work done.

    Apart for blind economic ideology/stupidity I have no idea why we lost our bus company

    PT is funded by the public, uses rate payer funded roads (Grafton Bridge for example is a good one) or tax payer highways (Northern Busway another great example) and ever since the privatisation we ratepayers have never known transparency when it comes to why subsidies are being demanded.

    You know when Infratil are hoovering up bus companies there’s big bucks in it.

    All revenues would go back into fleet improvements, better services and better conditions for drivers and none would go back into investors bank accounts. Wins hands down to me.

  2. Patrick R says:

    I don’t care who owns or runs the buses at the operational level. But as we pay a lot for it to happen I strongly believe in AT have firm strategic control over delivery, and that means routes and frequencies. Especially as we know that a successful city needs a successful PT network, and for a successful network there will always be a need for cross subsidisation and coordination. Two things the ‘the invisible hand’ of the competitive market does not encourage. In fact actively discourages.

  3. Anthony says:

    I used to have several nasty experiences with ritchies second hand, japanese buses, Im a senior school student for Roncalli College in Timaru, from year 9 to halfway to year 12 i had to put up with tyre blowouts, engine failures, broken windows and collasping seats in just one year, not to mention having no heating in the dead of winter!!

    Then Ritchies introduced the new “Truss” from designline, it has the appearance of a truck cab with a bus carriage, but it is very comfortable and is suitable for all weather, never had a breakdown since then too. :D it is getting overcrowded as yesterday we had 9 people who had to sit on the floor though i must admit it was funny watching a few students slide up and down the alsie while the bus went around the hills.

  4. Martin says:

    You all might not be aware of this but London’s world famous red buses are not run by TFL but by Stagecoach et al.
    TFL tried for years to operate the service itself but found that it just couldn’t be done. Instead they design and/or lease buses to private operators who agree to a certain level of service ala Veolia for a fixed time period and have finacial penalties for poor performance.
    Maybe this is the approach Auckland needs to make.

  5. millsy says:

    A return of public transport operations to public ownership is what must happen.

    If Auckland Transport is only allowed to own and run its own buses, you will find that standards will rise across the board, because every cent of revenue earned is ploughed straight back into the operations.

    I actually belive that the rail projects should be put on the burner for a while for the bus services to be ‘renationalised’ and sorted out.


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