Wellington bus drivers at their meeting on Tuesday 29 November
‘It’s less fuss, take a bus’ is a tagline for public transport campaigns from Hamilton to Northampton. And it’s true, buses, trains and ferries are not only better for the environment, if run well they are cheaper and faster than being jammed in motorway gridlock and fighting for carparks. Public transport options are also vital for the young, the old and those without the space, money or ability to own a car.
A good public transport network makes a huge different to your quality of life if you either choose not to, or can’t, add to New Zealand’s 3.6 million motor vehicles already on the road.
If you’re one of the 34% of New Zealanders who use our local public transport networks, you have probably noticed that the people working hard to keep us moving aren’t entirely happy. Union members have had to take or consider industrial action in both Wellington and Auckland to protect their terms and conditions of work, and in some cases minimum safe staffing for passengers. Transdev, the French rail operator in Auckland is proposing introducing ‘driver-only trains’. Unstaffed services are several hurdles away from reality, but nonetheless concerning to those with decades of experience in passenger management and industrial engineering. In Wellington the bus drivers are holding a stopwork meeting to discuss how they can protect their income and employment conditions when our bus services are taken over by a new provider. In Auckland, drivers have already had to take pay cuts after a changes to bus service contracts, despite the ticket price for commuters staying the same.
The best thing about public transport is it’s ours - funded by taxes and rates, it’s a great example of how things just work better together. We pool our money and give it to central government or councils to get the best value for money while getting us from A to B reliably and safely, without clogging up our roads with taxis or private cars. But unfortunately under the last Government, councils became less free to pick the operator that best reflects the local values of their region, or a service model that ensures quality experiences for commuters.
Under the ‘Public Transport Operating Model’, which is just a fancy name for the ‘rules’ to choose who runs your services, councils are forced to tender for companies who can ‘reduce reliance’ on ‘public subsidies’ - which is actually the point of a publicly funded service. What this means in reality is if you are an existing local company, even a big established one like Kiwirail, you can be squeezed out by competing tenders based on lower wages, like those from big multinationals Transdev or Hyundai Rotem. As our need for public transport increases, these giant companies can easily scale a business model by screwing down local employment conditions and often sending the profits from ratepayers offshore. If the financial bottom line is the primary decision criteria for council members, then of course it’s harder for local providers who respect good wages to win tenders.
But the people who take and fund public transport in New Zealand also live and work in our communities. They don’t want a bargain basement bus or train service with all the expected delays caused by skimping on train guards and quibbling over weekend rates. One can only imagine the level of care that goes into safety and maintenance if getting cash back to the shareholders is the company’s whole reason for being. Rather than a Scrooge McDuck tendering system, we think that if you want to play with our public rail set you have to promise to treat it carefully including guaranteeing fair wages and conditions. And that locals should be able to tell the Council what they want out of their pooled money.
If we are going to meet our international climate change commitments, or our vision of people-friendly cities, we’re going to have to fast-track the expansion of clean, affordable and reliable public transport services. There are fantastic models overseas where you don’t even need to check the route or timetable, you just turn up at the station knowing the next service will be along soon. In Japan, they apologised recently for a 20 second deviation from the train schedule! This kind of quality model requires highly valuing the skills of everyone employed to deliver it. And that’s less fuss for us all.