Auckland’s most cancelled bus routes

10:30 am on 5 April 2023
Bus against Auckland skyline

Photo: RNZ / Composite image

If you use the bus in Auckland, you'll be familiar with cancellations. An RNZ investigation reveals where they happen most often.

On the least reliable route in Auckland, the bus fails to show up a third of the time.

For the worst Wellington routes, click here.

An RNZ investigation of buses in Auckland and Wellington examined every weekday service in the two cities during February. It found an average of 1085 cancellations on a weekday in Auckland, and 448 daily cancellations in Wellington.

The investigation also reveals the bus routes in each city most prone to cancellation.

In Auckland, it's the 845, which had more than a third of its scheduled trips cancelled in February. The service between Milford and Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore includes stops at schools and North Shore Hospital.

Our analysis excludes cancellations on Waitangi Day and two days of heavy flooding in Auckland.

The interactive graphic below shows cancellation data for each day in February by bus route. Choose the route you want to see from the drop down menu.

The 845 route is one of 16 that operate in North Auckland among the 20 worst routes for cancellations.

North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby said he's heard frustration from constituents.

"Right now our bus service is missing the back axle, so to speak," Darby said.

Parts of a city can be hit harder than others because of the way the contracts are awarded to private companies. Routes are bundled into 'units' and companies bid to secure the contract for the unit. If the company holding the contract struggles to retain and recruit drivers, passengers in that unit will be hit with cancellations.

Five different companies run northern services: Ritchies, Tranzurban, NZ Bus, Go Bus, and Bayes Coachlines.

Ritchies, which runs 62 percent of northern trips, cancelled 17 percent of weekday trips during February. Tranzurban runs a single service, the NX2 from Hibiscus Coast to Auckland University. It ranked 12th worst for the percentage of weekday trips cancelled. During February, more than 1300 of approximately 5000 scheduled trips were cancelled, representing a quarter of timetabled trips not occurring.

NZ Bus, which runs almost 20 percent of trips, had 2 percent cancelled.

Darby wanted to see a tougher approach from Auckland Transport.

"Myself and other councillors have been demanding for probably over a year now that Auckland Transport do a lot more in sitting hard up against these bus companies, the operators themselves to ensure that they are doing the very best possible to run their part of a network," said Darby.

Operator incentives

Auckland Transport's metro optimisation manager Richard Harrison said its contracts with bus companies have a carrot and stick component. Companies were charged abatements for missing performance targets and received bonuses for meeting them. He couldn't give details on how many abatements have been issued, but said the fines were set high enough to be an incentive.

"The bus operators run on quite a tight margin. They're not taking a large profit from us, they're not a bank, so they feel it."

Cancelled trips count towards a company's 'reliability' performance target. If more than a small number occur then abatements are issued. These are set at a level similar to what it costs to run a bus trip, minus the cost of fixed assets, like buses.

"We're still paying them to have the vehicle available because as soon as we get drivers back, we want that vehicle to come back into the fleet," said Harrison.

Some companies, such as Howick and Eastern, which run services in the east of Auckland, and Pavlovich Coachlines, which runs services in the west of Auckland had done well in recruiting drivers, he said. Staffing gaps still remained for Ritchies and NZ Bus.

Harrison suggested it was a numbers game; those with bigger fleets who needed more drivers were likely to take longer to fill vacancies.

Ritchies director of people Sharon Scott said the cause of recent cancellations on its northern services was twofold. "As well as the ongoing driver shortage, over the past few weeks there's also been a higher rate of flu and illness and our drivers would not want to pass a cold or other illness to passengers so that impacts our rosters."

Asked how many vacancies it has or the hourly rate it pays drivers, RNZ was told Ritchies "can't help with those specifics" due to pay and vacancies varying widely.

Ritchies has provided driver vacancies weekly to Auckland Transport, but Auckland Transport said it couldn't release that information about the city's public transport companies without consulting with the private companies.

Auckland Transport did provide an estimate that there was a shortfall of 20 percent of drivers at the company. A union spokesperson said the hourly wage at Ritchies is $28.

Tranzurban did not respond to RNZ's questions in time for publication but has since shared it has a driver shortfall of 18 percent.

Reduced schedules

These cancellations come on top of a reduction in timetabled trips in October 2022, which saw hundreds of trips removed from timetables.

Auckland's hardest-hit areas were central city and western suburbs, with 15 percent of weekday central trips and 5 percent of trips scheduled for western areas removed from schedules.

One hundred and eighty trips were removed from Ritchies' northern timetables, although 37 trips were reinstated on 20 February.

Route 27T takes the cake as the route most affected by bus driver issues. The entire service which runs from Three Kings to Britomart was removed from schedules on 20 February.

In a brief update on its website Auckland Transport warned users of the defunct 27T route that seats on other buses may be hard to secure. "At busy times 27H and 27W buses are likely to fill up. Please consider alternative routes or travelling at other times if you can."

The most recent patronage statistics from Auckland Transport, to September last year, showed 1000 to 1700 people a day used the service.

"Honestly, it's very frustrating," said a commuter on the route, who had missed two university lectures in a week. "All the buses were full, there was probably 50 people waiting here." She waited over an hour, before taking another, longer bus route.

AT group manager of Metro Optimisation, Richard Harrison

AT group manager of Metro Optimisation, Richard Harrison Photo: RNZ / Farah Hancock

"It's made getting into the city impossible in the mornings because everyone's trying to catch it," another commuter told RNZ. "Everyone's moved back a few bus stops, so that by the time it gets here, it's already full."

Harrison admitted: "We stuffed up on that one.

"There are three variants of that route and we believed genuinely, having looked at the data and what we thought would happen was that the W's and the H's will be able to cope with demand on Mount Eden Road. We got that wrong."

He said single deckers were swapped for double deckers to increase capacity, but did not mention reinstating the 27T.

Commuters told RNZ in order to get into the city in time for work and morning lectures they had resorted to getting to the bus stop at least 40 minutes earlier.

"I left home at 6:30 or 6:45, just to get a bus to my nine-o-clock class yesterday."

Network-wide, the worst time on February weekdays was between 7 and 8am, with around 148 trips cancelled each day. Cancellations start to peak again from 3pm and continue to 7pm, with more than 100 cancellations per hour.

So, when will Aucklanders be able to stop checking the Auckland Transport app every morning to see if their bus is cancelled?

"As soon as possible," Harrison said. "I really want to stop dealing with cancellations, I hate it."

Auckland's bus driver shortage which stood at more than 500 in December has been chipped away at. The most recent figure is 369 vacancies, with one company reporting to have 43 offshore drivers in the process of securing visas. Getting paperwork in place and drivers into the country, settled and trained on city roads takes time though.

"The loose timelines we're getting from operators is it's going to be an incremental thing over the coming five to six months."

Timetable reductions could be here to stay. Auckland Council's proposed 2023/2024 budget suggested the cash-strapped council could save $21 million by not reinstating removed trips.

"I wait to see where the budget lands."

Data notes: Auckland data obtained from Auckland Council's GTFS API and LGOIMA requests. Cancelled trips based on an 'effect' of 'No Service' and text indicating a cancellation. Wellington data obtained from Metlink's GTFS API of trip cancellations and LGOIMA requests.