ON the buses? Maybe. Off the buses? Maybe. Depends on which data set you want to roll with.
Opal card data says patronage in the area is down. Private operator of public transport in Newcastle Keolis Downer says patronage is up by 5 per cent and the Opal card data doesn’t catch those passengers who pay but don’t use Opal cards. Nor does the Opal card catch those passengers who catch free buses in the city’s fare-free zone, although Keolis Downer won’t have to concern itself with counting passengers on free buses once light rail starts. Free fares will disappear faster than fidget spinners.
But as Herald correspondent Ken Godwin (Short Takes 20 March) points out, the Opal card does capture data around passengers who – because of route changes – now require three buses where one previously sufficed. Mr Godwin provides the example of the Swansea to Newcastle route now being Swansea to Mt Hutton, Mt Hutton to Charlestown and Charlestown to Newcastle. Three taps on, three taps off. He sees these changes as automatically tripling the patronage on this route and thinks this is “gaming the system”.
The lower Hunter’s state opposition members have jumped at the opportunity to rally the disenfranchised around recent changes to bus operations. And that’s normal political to-and-fro. It’s what oppositions should do. The people who use the buses and have been impacted by change should be heard, and a collective voice is louder than that of individuals. But that hearing won’t necessarily result in changes to the bus timetables that every punter seeks. Keolis Downer says they will be monitoring the efficacy of the January changes and that, after a six-month trial, there may be changes.
I’ve been using Newcastle buses regularly for around six years. The routes I use haven’t suffered a great impact and one service has actually improved its frequency. I’ve noticed newer, more comfortable buses. And I am a fan of the Opal card – a great initiative from the NSW government – for getting people onto the buses far quicker and keeping them moving rather than waiting for someone reaching into the depths of their pockets while looking for another 10 cents.
The Opal card had its implementation problems, but for most people it now works most of the time. It speeds up public transport and reduces waiting times. For me, the Newcastle bus service has improved with the introduction of the Opal card and the newer and more frequent buses.
Whoopee for me.
Not everyone reports a similar situation. And for those people, an opportunity to have advocacy on their behalf is the meat and potatoes of local MPs. But would a NSW Labor government demand the reintroduction all scrapped services in Newcastle? I doubt it.
Bus transport is undergoing major change in Newcastle. Regardless of ideological preference, what matters is whether the services – as defined by routes, frequency and cost both to passengers – meet demand and provide those with no other options the opportunity to travel to schools, hospitals and shopping centres. And it needs substantial taxpayer subsidy to do so. The challenge remains getting people on the buses who do have other options.
And there clearly needs to be a better methodology to accurately report patronage that captures all users and doesn’t “game the system”. Demand determines supply.
Twitter @paul_scott_ or firstname.lastname@example.org