Auckland’s city to airport bus has new owners bringing with them a new name, a new livery and promising a higher quality service. The Airbus Express service has been bought by SkyBus who operate Melbourne’s airport bus service.
Free on-board Wi-Fi and ground hosts to welcome intrepid travellers to Auckland are just the beginning of big plans by new owners to expand – and smarten – the 24-hour airport bus service.
The former Airbus fleet has already had its name changed to that of Melbourne’s 38-year-old SkyBus, which is taking it under its wing.
It will be repainted from light blue to red as more buses are added between the fast-growing airport precinct and downtown Auckland to widen the span of departures, which already run every 10 minutes during week days.
That follows a change of ownership from Johnston’s Coachlines to a consortium majority-owned by Canada’s Ontario Pension Trust, in a deal worth about $20 million.
Melbourne-based directors Michael Sewards and Adam Begg have hit the ground running in Auckland, adding two buses in their first couple of weeks here and installing free Wi-Fi across what is now a 15-strong shuttle fleet – with seven more due by May.
The service has long been popular, running 24/7 and with great frequency. On weekdays they run every 10 minutes between 7:30am and 8:10pm and on weekends they run every 15 minutes during the day. In the middle of the route the frequency splits in two with services alternating between Dominion Rd and Mt Eden Rd. The addition of more buses suggests frequency will improve even further making the service even more useful.
One aspect that is interesting is the move to a red livery like is used on their buses in Melbourne. Queen St already has the red City Link buses so users will have to pay more attention if catching either one. Once they change I wonder how long it will be till someone accidentally gets on a red SkyBus to a short distance up Queen St only to be charged $16 (the one way fare).
One of the reasons the cost for SkyBus is $16 is that the service is and has always been fully commercial meaning it isn’t subsided by Auckland Transport, siting to the side of the normal public transport system. As such the company can charge whatever they like. As such there is also no discount for using HOP and there is no indication that would change with the new operators and it seems they will continue to retain a separate ticketing system
Telecommunications company Spark is meanwhile developing a sophisticated ticket-buying app which it hopes to roll out in Auckland before Christmas and then back-load to Melbourne.
Mr Sewards said during a tag-team visit by the pair to Auckland this week that technological solutions encountered here had been “incredible.”
He is similarly impressed by Auckland Transport’s $100 million integrated Hop ticketing system, into which his fleet was plugged by its former owners, although SkyBus will remain fully commercial with none of the subsidies received by most other city bus operators.
The owners also talk about improving journey times. I imagine the biggest improvements would likely come from having more bus lanes and with better operating hours however the new owners also single out Waterview as helping. Unless they’re planning on running buses all the way to the city via the motorway then I can’t see how that will make a lot of difference.
Mr Sewards acknowledged room for improvement in journey times, now varying from about 45 minutes to an hour for the 12km trip between downtown Auckland and the airport.
That compares with about 20 minutes over the 23km between Melbourne’s CBD and its airport.
But he said Melbourne’s route was far more direct, along a single motorway, and is looking forward to faster bus trips in Auckland once the Waterview tunnels open in early 2017.
Lastly it’s an interesting time for the change in ownership as there are a number of interesting developments on the horizon.
From a PT perspective the competition to SkyBus is a combination of a train and what is currently the 380 bus (will be called the 30 in the new network). Next year Auckland Transport will roll out integrated fares which will make transferring between bus and train services cheaper and easier for most journeys. From the city it would be only three zones for which AT have indicated the cost would be $4.80-$5.00. The trade-off though is likely a longer journey time. Trains between Britomart and Papatoetoe every 5 minutes during the day and from there the 30 bus runs fairly direct to the airport however it only runs half hourly during the day and based on the current timetable even with an almost perfect connection it would take around an hour.
Longer term there is also the prospect of rail the airport. If Auckland Transport build it as an extension of the existing rail system like they should (either between Onehunga or from Otahuhu like suggested here) then travel times could be slashed quite substantially. If instead they go for the option of extending one of the proposed light rail routes travel times aren’t likely to be significantly different to what exists today.
Either rail implementation would have significant impacts on the SkyBus service who I can’t see just lying down and letting it happen. Given SkyBus is already successful and not subsidised they are able to put forward a strong case not to build rail – especially in the current political climate. Yet the service is only really successful on a commercial basis which may not be the best outcome for the city/country due to the higher cost meaning many will still prefer to drive. Based on the current airport arrivals and departures of around 15.5 million people annually the reported SkyBus figures of around 650,000 trips represents just over 4% of travellers. I can’t help but wonder just how much higher patronage would be if you combined both the much faster journeys of heavy rail with the proposed HOP pricing and that’s before you add in making PT more viable for many airport workers.