Wellington’s most cancelled bus routes

6:00 pm on 6 April 2023
Image of a bus with Wellington sign in the background

Photo: RNZ / Composite image

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

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

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.

For the worst Auckland routes, click here.

In Wellington it's the 36, which had more than a third of its scheduled trips cancelled in February. It runs between Lyall Bay and the Wellington station in the centre of the city.

Our analysis excludes cancellations on Waitangi Day and a day when there was a union meeting and almost double the number of cancellations occurred.

In total, there were almost 10,000 cancellations during February across Wellington.

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.

Greater Wellington Regional Council Transport committee chair Thomas Nash said for some people Wellington's bus system was working well, but for others in "pockets of unreliability" it was a different story.

"I hear a lot of complaints from people and I know it's not just numbers on a screen of cancellations, or dropped buses. It's actual impacts on people's everyday lives."

Commuters in Kāpiti and Wairarapa have largely avoided the cancellations, which have plagued other parts of the region.

The patchiness of cancellations in part comes down to the way the contracts are awarded to private companies by councils. Routes are bundled into 'units' and companies bid to secure the contract for the unit. If one company is struggling to retain and recruit drivers, then passengers in that unit will be hit with cancellations.

Wellington's 45 worst routes were all run by Tranzurban or NZ Bus. Tranzurban, which ran half of Wellington's weekday trips, cancelled 15 percent of these in February. NZ Bus, which ran a third of trips, cancelled 13 percent.

Mana Coachlines and Uzabus also run services for the council. During February, Uzabus had one weekday cancellation, Mana Coachlines had 134 cancellations, representing roughly 2 percent of its scheduled trips.

Contracts with companies include performance bonuses and abatements based on reliability and punctuality. Buses which are cancelled impact reliability scores. Metlink General Manager Samantha Gain said companies were being slapped with abatements.

"They have a degree of significance, they certainly would prefer not to have them. What we know is that they do have an impact, and that the bus companies are motivated to also be addressing the underlying issue of the driver shortage."

Greater Wellington Regional Council cut services from timetables to reduce the number of cancelled services in October and again in November 2022 "to improve the reliability of service".

In Wellington, Lower Hutt fared the worst. Sixteen percent of weekday scheduled trips were removed from timetables.

"Suspensions are targeted to services that are more frequent and also to some that are less patronised. The intention was that people would still have a service, it would just be less frequent than it might otherwise be," said Gain.

Wellington's bus passenger numbers were almost back to pre-Covid levels, said Gain. Weekday numbers were at 85 percent of what they were prior to the start of the pandemic, and weekend patronage was at 100 percent.

"We have in Wellington, a particularly peaky peak," said Gain, with most passengers commuting in the morning and evening. This was also when most cancellations occurred.

As part of improving driver conditions, and reducing split shifts, where drivers have a long unpaid break in the middle of the day, Metlink is trying to woo people onto off-peak buses.

A discount for travelling off peak doubled from 25 to 50 percent on April 1, she said.

"We're really trying to encourage people if they can to move their travel out of the peak to the off peak."

So, when can things get back to normal for bus users?

"I would love to have a crystal ball," said Gain. With what she described as a pipeline of 88 new staff waiting to fill drivers' seats, she hoped the cancellations would reduce in the coming months. "We're really hoping that by term three [September], we would be back to a more normal situation."

"We really do appreciate the frustration and annoyance that ad hoc cancellations caused."

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.