This is a post by Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan.
The Hon. Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Development, is supporting airports with the Provincial Growth Fund. Has he analysed which transport mode provides the best regional development outcomes? We’ve laid out some environmental and access reasons for a national network of passenger rail, bus, shuttle and supporting active mode infrastructure. Could that regional funding be used instead to establish this network? We believe the regional development opportunities offered exceed those of supporting the carbon-heavy air industry in a limited few locations. The turnout to the recent Climate Strikes suggests many people might agree; this is a solution to help de-carbonise our transport.
Perhaps the Minister needs to survey the state of the long distance and regional bus network? We thought we’d offer some help, and save him from having to wait in the cold for a long-distance coach to arrive, walk hundreds of metres in the rain to find a toilet, or cross a dangerous road to eat in a café that only sells pies and soft drinks. So we’ve been out in the field discovering what works and doesn’t work. Bus quality clearly matters, including access for people with disabilities. The service frequency, network coverage, number of stops, driver training and ease of accessing information are also important.
‘Paekākāriki refreshment room’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/paekakariki-station-cafeteria, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Oct-2014
In this post we consider the supporting infrastructure, important because most of New Zealand’s long distance buses do not have onboard toilets, and the days of being served food by an “attentive hostess” are long gone. Since NZ Railways was restructured and privatised, facilities to support rail and coach services have gradually been disappearing. Facilities are now generally provided by local authorities or private companies, and vary considerably in quality.
Questions for the Minister include:
- What work is being done to coordinate bus and rail facilities?
- Should government provide the facilities, or just guidelines and standards?
- Should they regulate?
Full answers require understanding the current deficiencies. Here are some examples of the good, the acceptable and the downright bad, for travellers between Auckland and Wellington.
Manukau Bus Station
Many people catch their long distance buses in South Auckland. The Manukau stop has recently been improved from an open sided bus shelter, to the pleasant and passenger-friendly Manukau bus interchange. Note that loading luggage and passengers can all take place under shelter. Transfers to the train and local buses are easy, including a regular bus to the airport.
Hamilton Transport Centre
Hamilton is an important interchange for long distance and regional buses, and the depot is located within the Hamilton Transport Centre, serving suburban buses too. It has excellent toilets operating 24 hours and a good quality café operating during the day. It is a long way from the rail passenger station at Frankton, but when rapid rail finally links Auckland and Hamilton it appears feasible to link an abandoned underground station to the centre.
Bulls is worth mentioning because it will shortly be upgraded, as part of a new community centre, thanks to the Rangitikei District Council. The current interchange already works pretty well so this does raise a question: Where there’s local impetus to improve the infrastructure, great. But how do we prioritise the interchanges where the quality is downright bad and there is no local champion?
At Bulls, we have also had reports of some drivers not opening the facilities for passengers.
Palmerston North Bus Depot at the The Square carpark
Palmerston North is an important regional hub for bus connections. The bus stop has good toilet facilities and there is an excellent selection of cafes nearby.
However, the stop illustrates the challenges we will face in trying to link rail and bus travel again. Although the main trunk railway line once passed through the centre of town, it now skirts past the town, leaving the train station over 2km away from the town centre. Bus stops and train stations are separated in a number of towns and cities including Ohakune, Hamilton and Auckland.
The depot has been designed with good rain cover for waiting passengers, but there is then an uncovered walk to toilets, cafes and the Main Street Terminal for the suburban bus, which is an extra 150m away. Ample carparking, on the other hand, is adjacent to the bus. Would a clear priority of connection to local public transport have produced a different design?
The provision of a disabled toilet at the Flat Hills cafe is to be commended, as not many depots do, but we feel there must be a solution available better than the current arrangement: the user has to make their way into the café, get to the counter, publicly ask for a key, then bring it back afterwards.
Many refreshment stops are at trucker style cafes. While some passengers no doubt appreciate the option of a pie and a cup of tea, an increasing number of New Zealanders and international travellers are looking for dairy- or gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan food.
The downright bad
Most bus depots do not have separate parent rooms. The photo shows an extremely poor example of a baby changing table next to the men’s urinal. There is no shelf to place nappy bags or equipment near the change table, nor any easy way to dispose of nappies and wipes.
Taupo Bus Stop
Another bad example is Taupo, an important interchange, refreshment stop and tourist destination.
The bus stops on a 5-lane main road. It is opposite some cafes, but the crossing infrastructure is 100 m away, and 250 m away from the toilets, meaning it doesn’t meet the needs of children and parents, people with limited mobility, and tourists unused to our traffic conditions. The long walk from the bus stop to either the barely acceptable free toilet facilities or the SuperLoo which charges a small fee is open to the elements, and can be a significant challenge for the disabled, the elderly or parents with babies. The toilets are unheated, there is no parents’ room and there is no drinking water available.
The authors have written to both InterCity and Taupo Council pointing out these problems but with no effect. Relatively low cost solutions would include moving the bus stop and shelters to outside the toilet and adding a new mid-block crossing there, building new facilities next to the current bus shelter, or making use of the adjacent I-Site facilities and carpark.
This seems like a worthy project for the council, given that the Waikato Regional Public Transport Plan 2018-2028 emphasises the need for good quality stops and shelters for public transport in Taupo. Alternatively, the Provincial Growth Fund could provide funding, but in this region they seem focused, instead, on financing a luxury gondola on Mt Ruapehu.
Waiouru Bus Stop
Waiouru is representative of many bus stops throughout New Zealand where passengers must wait in very poor conditions. This stop, in the Ruapehu District Council area, can be particularly bleak in winter when snow is not uncommon, yet it has no shelter. It is also next to a truck stop where movements in and out make walking in the area dangerous, meaning parents must exercise restraint just when their children need to let off some steam. Waiouru has now become a half hour rest stop for some buses, replacing a stop at Taihape. This is a poor choice given the often challenging weather conditions and the poor food choices in local cafes.
However, not is all bad in Waiouru. The nearby public toilets were voted “Best Loo” at the 2016 Keep NZ Beautiful Awards.
Finally, the excellently-located Central Auckland depot, worthy of a post in itself. The poorly maintained facilities demonstrate that a deal struck between a council with little interest in regional public transport and a casino/hotel company doesn’t guarantee even basic upkeep and cleanliness. The latest AT Board Meeting Closed Session Agenda included the item ““. What deal will be struck with Sky City to release its responsibilities to Auckland for hosting the location? Has a well-located, central site been found that will retain the good connections to local bus and to the post-CRL passenger rail network? Is this a sign that the Council has connected the dots between a Climate Emergency and improving the regional buses?
What lessons can we learn from stops on this route?
Currently, some of the best stops are at private facilities. It is obvious why Intercity have chosen to work their timetables around these locations: drivers and passengers are well-served. Yet as more services are added to the network, locations to enable easy transfers become more important. Strategically, the locations of the bus depots need to be planned as part of a coordinated network of rail and bus. Many towns and cities no longer have train stations at good, central locations. If we are to avoid wasting money on bus depots that ultimately end up in the wrong location, we need to establish now where stations would go if, over time, we are to re-establish a passenger rail network.
In our opinion, safe access to good toilets, good food and quality waiting rooms are the critical requirements to improve life when travelling. The facilities provided at bus depots do not match in quality those likely to be found at airports or tourist areas.
Here’s how the facilities at bus stops and depots could be improved:
- Locations need to be supported by safe pedestrian infrastructure.
- Good site design is needed to enable easy and safe transfer between the regional bus, local bus, train, shuttle, taxi, cycling and walking networks.
- Where possible, depots could be incorporated into community centres, to introduce interest, activity and security.
- At interchanges and refreshment stops, seats and shelter for waiting passengers should include parents’ rooms and be comfortable in temperature. The walks between bus and facilities at these stops should be short, safe, and preferably under shelter from rain.
- Quality, well-maintained toilets are critical, including disabled toilets and changing facilities for babies. These should be open for anyone waiting for a bus (passenger or not), and this shouldn’t be dependent on the attitude of any particular staff member or driver.
- More diversity in dietary options is important. Bus companies need to follow the airlines’ lead in reviewing their refreshment offerings to cater for a changing market.
- At minor stops, on both urban streets and rural roads, there should at least be seats and shelter from the rain, even if it is the natural shelter of good tree cover.
- Wayfinding and transport information should be available at depots and stops.
There is potential for some creativity and local placemaking.
What is needed from government?
As we discussed in our post Regional Access, NZTA need to provide “inclusive access”:
There needs to be improved management of transport demand and operations and transport investment must take a mode-neutral approach, enabling wider and longer-term social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes in cities and regions.
For bus travel to be an attractive travel option, significant upgrades will be needed to bring the infrastructure up to the same quality enjoyed by air travellers. Compared with many large scale transport projects, these improvements seem relatively inexpensive.
If central government is to improve facilities, will money come from an activity class within the National Land Transport Fund, from the Provincial Growth Fund, or from a new Climate Change fund?
Some councils seem willing to invest in facilities; others don’t. Can we expect consistency between regional public transport plans? Are regulations the best way to ensure standards are consistently high?
If private enterprise is to provide facilities, how will the locations be chosen? Private enterprise will expect long-term planning.
Most importantly, if a national public transport network is to be revived and improved, how will central government make good decisions about the role it should play, and about where investment is required? Can we expect coordination between different government ministries involved with, for example, transport, regional development, the needs of an ageing population, and the challenges of climate change?
To make even basic decisions, data is needed. Racing ahead with decisions to support regional airports, without robust mode-neutral analysis into the best social and environmental outcomes for our investment, makes a mockery of good infrastructure planning and of our business case processes.