On the Buses (in Greater Wellington)

Almost one year ago the Wellington Regional Council changed the public transport systems. We had come to terms with the way the system worked, but it had to change. I firmly believe that the “genius” who devised these changes has never traveled on a bus. Dave Armstrong memorably called it the “busastrophe”, although the train system was affected too. I was directly affected: the bus that goes along my street, and stops at the nearest bus stop, no longer goes beyond Johnsonville. I have to change buses to go into town. However I was determined to get to grips with the new system, and not join the crowds of complainants. That was then!

They changed everything – the timetables, the routes, the buses themselves, made 100 bus drivers redundant, and then had a shortage of bus drivers so that some services couldn’t run. They introduced hubs so that instead of taking a bus to one’s destination, one would have to take a bus to one of the new (unfinished) hubs, find the correct bus stop for the remaining journey, change buses, and pay again. They also changed the payment system. They had worked at great legal cost to contract a company to run the system at the lowest cost, achieving savings by – you’ve guessed it – reducing pay, taking on newbies, and then not giving them decent rest, toilet or meal breaks. Many passengers felt sorry for the drivers – the ensuing chaos was certainly not their fault! They were new to driving buses, and didn’t know the changed routes. We passengers missed the familiar faces of former drivers, who for the most part were kind, cheerful and thoughtful.

Recently legislation came into effect providing mandatory breaks. We were advised that to allow for this, some services would be cancelled.

Those of us with Super Gold Cards generally don’t have to get to work on time, so it doesn’t matter so much for us, but the frustrations of those employed, to now have to catch two buses, to see full buses drive past them, or not turn up at all, must have been immense. Never mind that people should be using public transport instead of driving their cars to work, many of them drove to work in order to be sure of getting there at all.

New drivers also did not know the new routes, as they attempted to drive big new double-decker electric buses around Wellington’s many notoriously steep and narrow streets. Shortly after the change, there were Metlink staff on the buses to indicate the routes that should be taken. I guess it’s good that new double-decker buses are electric, and not burning fossil fuels; are they quieter? It’s very hard to have a cell phone conversation on the bus.

Apparently buses no longer stopped at Wellington Regional Hospital (a common destination), or Wellington Zoo. I gather this has changed now.

The hubs were not ready, so in addition to the confusion of buses operating randomly, and the welcomed electronic sign boards often telling nothing, or fables, the stops shifted. There are three official bus stops in Johnsonville, a great many parking spaces have been removed, and one has to cross Moorefield Road – sometimes. The bus stops always seem to be in windy spots. I guess the WRC can’t help that, but the shelters should offer more shelter, as well as seating. The Johnsonville Hub remains difficult to get to – one takes one’s life in one’s hands, looking for a pedestrian crossing, crossing the busy car park, often in the wind, avoiding reversing cars and trucks.

There’s another beef, too: the electronic sign board doesn’t tell which buses go from which stop, so its usefulness is limited. If a bus doesn’t turn up, it disappears from the signboard, after previously showing as Due. This has a certain logic, but how does one know if it’s late, or cancelled? Also, the Number 1 bus can go to Churton Park, Grenada Village, or Johnsonville West. The number 19 loops between Johnsonville and Churton Park, but always says it’s going to Johnsonville, which is technically true; it goes via Churton Park, using a different route from the number 1 to Churton Park. Confusing? You bet. This loop functions half-hourly, so coming from the CBD, one tries to coordinate at Johnsonville and catch the 2:50 pm bus using one’s Gold Card, sometimes unsuccessfully.

The routes are seemingly random, too. One bus to Johnsonville climbs up Onslow Road, going along Homebush Road and through Khandallah, then through Broadmeadows, coming to its destination at a new stop opposite the Johnsonville Railway Station (yes, one has to cross the road, there).

Another bus to Johnsonville takes the Newlands off ramp coming up the Ngauranga Gorge, and does another “scenic trip” through Newlands and Woodridge, thus effectively making it impossible to catch the 2:50 pm loop service to Churton Park. One time a bus came to Johnsonville from the CBD very quickly; maybe this was a one-off. Another time I caught a number 1 to Churton Park, only to have it swing up Stewart Drive towards Newlands. The driver apologized for going in the wrong direction, when this was pointed out to him.

Anyone over 65 holding a Gold Card turns into a pumpkin at 3 pm in Wellington on weekdays, meaning one must board a passenger service (why do I use that old-fashioned word?) before 3 pm if it’s going to be free.

Along with all the changes, the use of a snapper card is strongly encouraged. This means that those using it must log on and off. It’s probably faster overall; the driver seldom has to take issue a ticket, and indeed it’s preferable to have the correct change, if this is necessary.

It used to cost $2 to travel from Johnsonville to Churton Park, now it costs $2.50, if you travel after 3 pm. Recently I saw an older person using a snapper card for after-hours travel, and I decided to get one myself.

When I investigated this, I found that not only were snapper fares cheaper than ticketed fares, the fare was half-price for Green Card (disability) holders. To make this happen, you had to go to the WCC Service Centre next to the Wellington City Library, only to be re-directed (thanks, earthquake engineers), to the relocated office in Manners St, next to the new library site.

The woman there told me to go to the convenience store across the road and buy a Snapper card, then go to Aon House (12th floor) to the Snapper centre to have the Green Card effect applied. I did as requested, finding that you pay $10 for the card, plus whatever balance you would like. I figured this was still worth while, and set off for Aon House. After looking at the street numbers, I figured out that the Aon Centre was at the other end of Willis St, and headed off down that way to the “skyscraper” formerly the State Insurance Building, and before that the BNZ Centre, otherwise known as Darth Vader’s pencil sharpener.

I played around with the lifts there. I pressed 12 as indicated, and the indication was lift E. But I could only see lifts A, B, C and D. I went round to the other side of the cavernous lift block, and there were four more lifts. I took lift E as instructed, but it wasn’t evident which floors it stopped at – they all looked the same! I got out at the wrong level, and had to wait for lift F to take me to level 12. Once there, I walked to the Snapper centre, rang the bell, and sat down and waited. A very helpful young woman eventually came to my assistance. I found that in spite of paying $20 for my snapper card, the value on it now stood at $9.75. Where did that 25c go? Eventually I won, I think, and am now the proud owner of a snapper card, should I need to use it.

The composition of travelers is interesting. Before the changeover, the buses were well patronized by elderly folk, who stayed away in droves while the new system bedded in. However the number 1 buses often seem empty, except just occasionally when they’re not! There is a very full bus from the CBD to Johnsonville just before 3 pm, when seats are hard to find. Usually the drivers are very patient and polite, waiting till you’ve sat down before taking off, although they tend to swing around corners. One time I caught a number 19A from Johnsonville, which was very full. I suspect it had come from town.

Many buses are differently configured. Apparently the authorities removed seats so there would be more room for standing passengers! But there is nothing much to hold on to, especially in the front half of the bus, sometimes even no handholds in a rail attached to the ceiling, and few poles. Some of the luggage spaces have been removed. Many of the seats reserved for elderly or disabled or pregnant customers or mothers with pushchairs are folding ones. Huh? It’s an achievement to catch the right bus, up often steep steps; having achieved that, one doesn’t expect to have to wrestle with the seat! And many of us prefer to be seated looking forward, not backwards or sideways.

On the double-decker buses, one tends to sit behind the stairwell, facing forward, but this has the disadvantage of being a cold spot. One wonders why they have air conditioning on in winter? I aim to sit near the back door, if there’s time, and room, so that I can get out easily, but there tend to be few seats available. One doesn’t want to climb stairs, either to sit upstairs, or to the back or immediate front of the bus. Ultimately, one doesn’t want to fall over!

One of my gripes is the changes to the Porirua buses. One used to be able to catch a bus – 230 or 231 – from either of the stops outside Pataka into Johnsonville or Wellington via Johnsonville. Now you have to go to the Porirua Station – another cold, windy spot. Of course, one can walk between Pataka (with a library, a nice cafe, clean restroom, gift shop and galleries), North City Shopping Centre (with Farmers, several good cafes, and clean restrooms), and Porirua Station, but if the weather’s ghastly you’d prefer not to.
The Airport Flyer is an interesting case. Despite its popularity, the number 91 bus is not part of Metlink (one can only wonder why not), and does not use the snapper card. However the buses have air conditioning (great in summer), a screen that actually works and tells you the news highlights and the weather, and the drivers are very helpful. They take the Gold Card too, of course. I made my way to Queensgate Shopping Centre in Lower Hutt (and back) using public transport, within the off-peak Gold Card hours. Spoiler alert: the 91 bus goes up Molesworth Street and onto the motorway from there, so it’s best to catch it from where it stops in Lambton Quay (outside Farmers). It comes back through the Wellington Railway Station bus stops.

I need to put in a word here for the suburban trains. Generally they provide great service, being clean, busy but uncrowded, with welcoming conductors. They do give you a ticket, although the ride is free. Under the changes, services are usually 20 rather than 30 minutes apart, a welcome change.

This brings me to the hubs. While Wellington Railway Station is a cold and draughty spot, it does have quite good restrooms and a New World Supermarket. It does a good job of providing directions and safe and good access via subway to the various bus stops, for example, there is an elevator to the main bus stops, and a lift to the Northern Suburbs bus stops, where you can sit inside, out of the wind and rain.

I wish there was a better Johnsonville hub, where one could walk safely to the Railway Station, or the various bus stops: it would be helpful to have a single view of how best to get into town. Having said that, buses are probably more frequent, and you can go right to Courtenay Place on most.

I have downloaded the Metlink app on my phone, and try to remember to look up and see what disruptions there may be on today’s route. I find the timetables useful, but the “plan” your journey feature really annoying. It doesn’t work for me, despite my repeated attempts to use it.

To their credit, I believe Metlink have held community meetings (in the evening) and have tried to address the timetabling and capacity problems. But many buses have been cancelled, seemingly without warning, and I believe taxi drivers have done well out of the changes! We keep reading that there is a driver shortage, on buses and trains, to which one can only wonder why previous drivers were made redundant, when they are still such a crucial part of public transport here.

There has obviously been a huge use of technology in these changes. This is fine, when it works to inform people what’s happening!

I am extremely happy to have my Gold Card, indeed I like to use it and venture forth to explore Porirua, Petone and Lower and Upper Hutt, as well as the Wellington CBD, but there are a number of challenges in terms of the hours one can use it (how about 10 am – 4 pm?), and accessibility, which is just awful. And, as I said earlier, the shelters could provide more actual shelter, as well as seats! Surely, if use of public transport is to be encouraged, it must be pleasant and efficient to use, and safe and easy to get to, as well.

I am grateful for the Gold Card, which encourages me to explore, go to the one of the libraries, by a cup of coffee, and perhaps explore the sales. I’m sure it helps the retail and hospitality sectors too. It’s good to get out, whatever adventures one may have along the way.

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