This is a post by Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan. We also appreciate the contribution of key information on recent history of the sector from Greater Auckland reader ‘Kris’ Chris McKellar. While we’ve enjoyed reading widely to compile this information, and take responsibility for any errors, we look forward to learning more in the comments.
(Credit for above image: Newmans bus, Cathedral grounds, Nelson. Ref: 1/1-003864-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22802215 )
In our first post we set out some environmental reasons to rebuild a low-carbon national public transport network. Countries such as Sweden have taken action this year to improve low carbon long distant travel:
In the quest to reduce the massive carbon footprint from global transportation, Sweden plans to revive a staple of 20th century travel: the overnight train.
Since then the Auckland Council, along with many other local bodies around New Zealand, has declared a climate emergency. The time is right to look with fresh eyes at ways to reduce our rising transport emissions.
New Zealand had a significant rail and regional bus network as recently as 1976:
(Note: A surprising number of rail lines on this map were used as passenger lines in 1976, but not all.)
Greater Auckland developed a vision for improved long distance train services in New Zealand, especially rapid trains connecting Auckland with Tauranga and Hamilton. Others have suggested bringing back the daily overnight train between Wellington and Auckland, and extending rail services to Rotorua, Taupo and Northland. Electric planes may one day be viable on some routes. EVs will also be part of the solution.
However, for large rail projects and electrifying aviation, the capital investment will be significant and time frames long. In this time of climate crisis all alternative forms of land based transport need to be considered, especially those that involve relatively little capital investment and short time frames. In this article we therefore focus primarily on long distance buses, as they can most quickly be established into a network and then adjusted as improved rail lines come on board.
There seems to be an attitude that bus travel is second-rate to trains, but the bus network coverage will always be more than rail can achieve in New Zealand. In later posts we will discuss the improvements we believe are necessary to encourage people to shift from driving to regional bus travel. In this post we present a few excerpts from New Zealand’s history of long distance buses, which could be helpful in understanding the current industry structure and its particular strengths and weaknesses.
History of the industry
The Newman Brothers provides an example of the evolution of an early family business. They had been running horse coaches since 1879 and began operating service cars in 1911.
(Credit: Newman Brothers passenger vehicle with postal bags, Nelson. Ref: 1/1-011316-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23101112)
As technology advanced, the company began using buses. Part of the reason the company was successful was that it was based in Nelson where there was no railway. Newmans merged or was taken over in 1972, 1988, 1994 and finally lost its branding as it merged into InterCity in 1998. Interestingly, in 1991 the company negotiated with Mount Cook Lines to serve only one of the main islands each. Newmans are still listed in tourist websites or in google searches today, but the booking process ends up on the InterCity page. Newmans’ history illustrates the changes in the sector:
In early European settlement the sector evolved from small family businesses. In places where there were good rail networks, buses were seen as not needed. The New Zealand Bus and Coach Association suggests that in the early 20th century New Zealand Railways tolerated private bus companies as long as they concentrated on routes not serviced by rail links. Te Ara says:
The 1933 Transport Amendment Act said no new licences would be given to bus services that ran along railway routes
New Zealand Railways started buying bus companies and forming their own bus service, the New Zealand Railways Road Services (NZRRS), from 1926 onwards. Te Ara says:
NZRRS grew dramatically under the first Labour government, buying out 27 private companies between 1936 and 1939. In 1940 it had 138 coaches; in 1950, twice that. By 1980, it was three times as large as the next-biggest coach company, Newman’s Coachlines.
(Credit: Bus and Coach Association New Zealand)
In the late 1940s the first Wellington to Auckland bus service was established. At the top of the market was the 24-seater Luxury Landliner. Its route was calculated so it did not coincide with the main trunk railway line – and it was not allowed to pick up or put down passengers between the two cities. The buses featured bathrooms, complimentary meal service and “an attentive Landliner hostess.”
A number of factors led to the demise of long distance bus travel, primarily the increasing numbers of private cars and the introduction of affordable air travel. This affected rail, too, with lines to Northland and elsewhere closing.
The 1980s was a decade of deregulation. The Transport Amendment Act 1983 changed the licensing system and ended government fare-setting. Bus companies no longer had to show a service was needed, just that they could deliver it safely and reliably. In 1991, New Zealand Railways Road Services was privatised. Te Ara has a good summary of the rise and eventual demise of these services. Its long-distance services were bought by the InterCity Group.
De-regulation and privatisation was also dramatically affecting rail services, and slowly more regional services disappeared. This included the overnight train between Wellington and Auckland, the train between Wellington and New Plymouth and the one that linked Wellington to Gisborne and Napier. The main long distance competitor, Air New Zealand, was also privatised in 1989, but then returned to majority government ownership in 2001 after near bankruptcy. So by the start of the 21st century, the government had a strong incentive to make sure Air New Zealand was successful but had little direct interest in buses.
Here is InterCity’s current map. Note the pink routes are intended for tourists so, for example, there are three daily services from Te Anau to Milford Sound, but they happen within 50 minutes of each other in the middle of the day. Like the earlier NZRRS map, it includes lines not in use anymore. You can’t actually book a trip to the Hokianga through InterCity.
With the NZRRS built up to be a dominant player, privatisation had placed InterCity as a dominant commercial operation. Two important competitors entered the market in recent years: Naked Bus and ManaBus. Naked Bus challenged InterCity by offering cheap fares. InterCity responded by trying to win customers with a better and cheaper product; they offered fares from $1, improved driver training, bought more coaches, put up drivers’ wages and improved schedules.
ManaBus commenced operating express coach services on the North Island of New Zealand on 21 November 2014. In May 2015 it took over Nakedbus. ManaBus challenged InterCity by offering a better experience. They introduced Scania double decker coaches, with driver and attendant, onboard toilet, table seating, mobility access and daylight fares from $15 between Auckland and Wellington.
InterCity responded to Manabus entering the market by introducing new Scania Double Deckers with Gold Seats (now called premium seats) that offered passengers wider seats with increased space between them, and greater recline, in a 1-2 (1 aisle 2) seating configuration and onboard toilet. The onboard toilets have since been taken out, as InterCity had many problems with blocked and overflowing toilets.
ManaBus and Nakedbus ceased operation on 15 July 2018. The companies weren’t actually sold, but the bus fleets were, and are being used as part of the InterCity fleet.
InterCity emerged from this competition offering a better product. However, with the exception of a new sleeper service between Auckland and Wellington, its coaches have no onboard toilets or refreshment facilities so the company relies heavily on the infrastructure available along its routes. This supporting infrastructure varies in quality.
InterCity is 46.3% owned by Ritchies, 46.3% by Tranzit and 7.4% by Nelson Coachlines (SBL Group). Ritchies and Nelson Coachlines are well established family owned businesses based in the South Island while Tranzit is owned by the Snelgrove family based in Masterton. InterCity Group does not own any buses or coaches and contracts its buses from its shareholder companies.
Late in 2018 Skip started operating out of Auckland, using some former Manabus/Nakedbus coaches. This service is an even lower cost option than InterCity and seems to focus on the youth market. The routes are limited to a couple of popular North Island routes with few stops. Skip is also owned by the InterCity group. In fact many bus brands are also owned by InterCity. The lack of competition is likely to influence the level of service provided.
The long distance bus network doesn’t have comprehensive coverage of the country. Where access is poor, therefore, a range of other services have developed.
For the tourist market, there are services like Stray where people can get on and off along particular routes.
There are also some small private operators who serve particular areas. An example is Go Kiwi, linking Auckland with the Coromandel. A weekend oriented ferry service also links Auckland and the town of Coromandel. In the South Island Atomic Shuttles run some services from Christchurch.
There are some rural bus services provided by regional councils. These are often infrequent with limited destinations. The Northland Regional Council, for example, provides a few Buslink services, such as a morning service from Omapere to Kaikohe three days a week, returning that same day in the afternoon.
Organisations like Health Boards, the Cancer Society and St Johns organise shuttle services for patients to access medical services. Usually, these are run by volunteers.
In some areas, a regular service is seen as unattainable, and people rely on taxi services. This Foxton service is all-electric. Sometimes the Councils provide discounts on taxis for people with impairments, such as the Taranaki Total Mobility Scheme.
All these services are generally operated independently of each other with no network easily linking them together, and no comprehensive common booking system. In another post, we’ll discuss how technology could improve the booking experience and make many more trip possibilities visible.
In summary, the national public transport network has been buffeted by changing political ideology; it has never achieved full coordinated state control nor customer-focused competition without a monopoly. Currently, the main network is run privately for profit, and is not comprehensive geographically. Some gaps are filled by tourist-focused boutique services that also make a profit, while at the other extreme, some are provided by people volunteering their time in order to provide basic levels of access for those in need.
The climate crisis, helped by evolving technology, gives us the opportunity to rebuild an efficient, high quality, low carbon national public transport network