Government urged to buy 10,000 electric and hydrogen buses for new public transport plan

10:43 am on 20 August 2022

Ten thousand electric and hydrogen buses should be purchased by the Government to support its public transport sustainability goals, a Northland sector veteran says.

What now for Whangārei public buses in the wake of the government's new sustainable public transport plan.

What now for Whangārei public buses in the wake of the government's new sustainable public transport plan Photo: Michael Cunningham/Northern Advocate

Whangārei's Gavin Roberts' comments come in the wake of the Government this week announcing its new sustainable public transport framework.

The 43-year public bus service veteran said the Government's purchase of a mix of buses powered by electricity or hydrogen would help support its public transport emissions reduction goals.

Transport Minister Michael Wood announced the new plan with improved environmental and health outcomes among its aims.

"We are rolling out a new public transport model, that will prioritise fair and equitable treatment of employees, mode-shift and improved environment and health outcomes," Wood said.

Roberts, who owns Whangārei Passenger Services with wife Shona, welcomed the new plan but said adequate government support and funding was key to making it work.

Government bus purchasing would enable cheaper bus buying.

Roberts said the cost of a new hydrogen or electric bus would be between $600,000 and $700,000. Bulk purchasing would reduce this cost. In comparison diesel buses cost $350,000 to $400,000.

He said adequate government funding also included making sure there was enough provided to support Northland Regional Council (NRC), and its counterparts around New Zealand, in choosing the best public service bus providers.

Roberts said New Zealand's current public bus regime had for some time favoured big operators that could make cost savings.

"But the outcome, as evidenced in the main centres throughout New Zealand, has resulted in a lack of wage increase for drivers leading to an exodus from the profession ... ," Roberts said.

He said drivers' pay and working conditions should be the new legislation's foremost consideration.

Wood said workers and public transport users were at the framework's heart.

"For too long, the public transport model has encouraged operators to squeeze worker conditions, pay and opportunities, preventing public transport from living up to its full potential," Wood said.

"The current model that was meant to lead to better public transport is causing operators to wind back services and timetables, because they can't get drivers. Public transport is too important to our environmental, social and economic goals to allow this to continue.

Wood said the framework included allowing councils to own public transport services.

"Public transport authorities will have the option to own assets and operate services, if they feel that's a better solution for their community than outsourcing to an outside provider. This will make it easier to plan networks and services, to set fares and policies, and encourage innovation in how services are delivered," he said.

Northland's biggest public bus contract operator is keeping a low profile about the future of its $16 million-plus Whangārei services in the face of the new plan.

American-owned Ritchies Transport operates the nine-year almost $1.8 million per annum Whangārei public bus contract. It is one of New Zealand's largest transport providers with a fleet of more than 1600 vehicles, 1800 staff and 42 depots across the country.

A spokesperson said the company looked forward to receiving more information about the framework and would not comment further.

NRC also reacted similarly. The council's group manager community resilience, Victoria Harwood said the new framework's final version was not yet available. The council could therefore not yet comment on its implications.

Roberts said NRC now had three choices.

The council could own and operate a passenger fleet on its own. It could alternately change to a public/private partnership, selecting the best operator to achieve desired outcomes.

Or NRC could instead continue as it had been. That needed to come along with thorough and realistic due diligence in assessing tenders, with lowest-cost tenders not necessarily selected.

"We would like to believe Northland's elected councils will focus on what is best for the community and the services provided or planned for in the future, and not focus on 'the cheapest price' without intensive due diligence," Roberts said.

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On the flip side of the coin, should services become council-owned, it would then be a backward step for the council of the day to withdraw all council-subsidised services under the misguided notion that 'user-pays' would pay for city bus services, he said.

This had happened in Whangārei in the early 90s.

"We would hope there is a mechanism within the [framework] to prevent such draconian action that compromised community wellbeing in that era," Roberts said.

The Roberts' public bus transport involvement includes running the service in a public/private partnership using buses owned by then Whangārei City Council. They have also run Whangārei's public bus service using buses their company owned and operated to specified NRC standards.

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