20 Nov 2023

Waka Kotahi sticking to planned NTS rollout despite 'updated release schedule' from US contractor

11:52 am on 20 November 2023
Waka Kotahi is negotiating with Auckland Council and Auckland Transport over a shortfall in funding for the city's transport services and infrastructure.

A lot of store is being put on a simple, effective National Ticketing Solution boosting public transport numbers, especially in Auckland, but Cubic Transportation Systems - the US contractor tasked with building and operating it for the next decade - has signalled it is running behind time on the project. Photo: Supplied

A US contractor has signalled it is running behind time on its half-billion-dollar New Zealand transport project.

Cubic Transportation Systems has suffered recent setbacks, losing out on huge ticketing projects in the US and Australia.

In New Zealand, it holds a $475 million contract to build and operate the National Ticketing Solution (NTS) for the next decade, but has had early problems getting enough staff and resources.

The NTS will integrate more than a dozen different public transport systems across the country that collect fares in different ways, into a single system, so you can ride any bus, train or ferry by scanning on with your phone, credit or debit card, instead of using this or that travel card, like Hop or Snapper.

In June, a worried Waka Kotahi sought - and got - assurances from Cubic that its capacity problems had been fixed.

But two of the three senior Cubic people who gave those online assurances - including the transportation president - have now left the San Diego-based transport military contractor.

Waka Kotahi confirmed on Friday, after repeated queries from RNZ, that the new president had "presented an updated release schedule".

"We're assessing the impact of the revised schedule on our plans," the agency said.

Yet it said it was sticking by its schedule to go live with NTS in the second half of 2024 in Canterbury, and everywhere else by the end of 2026.

Altogether, the NTS budget is $1.4b, though business cases point out that simply keeping the 16 different ticket systems currently in use around the country going, would cost about a billion dollars.

A lot of store is being put on a simple, effective NTS boosting public transport numbers, especially in Auckland, where question marks over inadequate public transport loom large in a new debate over moves to bring in congestion charging on some motorways within two years.

Early estimates are that the NTS could save Auckland $32m if it pushed up public transport numbers 3.5 percent, or cost the city $20m if they went up only 1 percent.

The dozen regions that face paying to shift from their existing ticket systems to NTS, have expressed nervousness around "ongoing funding uncertainties", and so insisted they "retain the ability to exit" the new system - within 60 days before it goes live, and after that point on three years' notice.

Auckland has the added insurance of recently paying up to $23m to keep its existing Hop ticket system going till 2026, in case national ticketing is held up.

Part of that spend is to upgrade Hop to be similar to NTS - that is, "open loop", which is a system that instead of using a separate travel card, involves tap-and-go payment by credit or debit card or cellphone.

Auckland Transport (AT) said it was not doubling up on the costs to ratepayers.

"AT is not paying twice for open loop technology," it told RNZ.

Instead, Hop, upgraded to open loop by mid-2024, would provide "a staged transformation" to the open-loop NTS by the end of 2026.

That is the aim, but it does not take into account Cubic's newly "revised" schedule.

In its back pocket, Auckland has kept the right to extend Hop beyond 2026, "given that the NTS timeline is an estimate and could slip", online papers said.

In Canterbury, ECAN has extended its existing ticket contract until the end of next year, though the aim is the NTS will kick off there next August.

Waka Kotahi said its engagement on the project "has not been impacted by any personnel changes within Cubic".

Cubic Australasian region head, who had only just got the job, was among those culled when the new president, Peter Torrellas, came in; Torrellas was now managing the region "while he recruits a permanent, in-region successor", the company told RNZ.

It did not respond to a question about the delays, only to say Torrellas was "meeting several times a week with Waka Kotahi".

A US transport website has quoted unnamed sources predicting problems integrating the Hop and NTS systems in Auckland - it "will be anything but seamless".

The same site, Mobility Payments, said last month Cubic faced setbacks from losing out on big ticketing contracts in Melbourne and Atlanta, even as other major system upgrades were coming up for bidding in Europe and North America.

Cubic has been upgrading ticketing in the UK.

Whether new systems can use existing card readers, or must pay millions to replace them, has been a key factor in some rollouts.

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