Opal data shows seniors dropping off Newcastle buses as overall numbers fall

Bus protesters at a public rally in March.
Bus protesters at a public rally in March.

Opal transport card data shows seniors and pensioners are leaving Newcastle’s new privatised bus network amid a decline in overall patronage.

Transport for NSW data for the first four months of the year shows seniors and pensioners took 39,176 fewer trips on the Keolis Downer network compared with the corresponding period last year, a fall of 7.3 per cent.

The drop in senior and pensioner Opal trips accounts for more than half of a 72,503 fall in all Opal journeys in Newcastle in the first four months of the year.

The fall is even greater given Keolis Downer has divided some bus routes into two or three trips under a network overhaul launched in mid-January.

In March, the company’s Hunter general manager, Mark Dunlop, said on ABC radio that these extra connections had inflated trip numbers by about 400 a day, which equates to 48,000 over four months.

Adding the two figures together produces a four-month fall of 120,503 trips, or 7.75 per cent. 

The Opal data shows overall passenger numbers fell 55,338 in March, a year-on-year decline of 11.2 per cent, before rising 2724, or 0.8 per cent, in April. 

Many factors influence year-on-year fluctuations in patronage numbers, including the weather and the timing of weekends and school and public holidays. 

March contained 23 working days last year and 21 this year, but this was balanced out in April, which had 17 last year and 19 this year.  

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Keolis Downer said on Tuesday that patronage had shown “remarkable resilience given the broad changes made in January”.

“This is the largest change made in decades on a network that was not performing and in historical decline,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

“While senior/pensioner Opal travel is slightly down over the period being reported, adult (full fare) is up, as is concession, while school student remains steady.

“Opal-only data does not give a true indication of the number of people catching the bus in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie as it excludes travel in the fare-free zone, on demand, and park-and-ride from McDonald Jones Stadium.

“Keolis Downer Hunter is committed to increasing public transport use across all ticket types, right across the service area.”

Earlier this year Keolis Downer and the state government announced a 4.9 per cent rise in patronage in January, but it later emerged that this increase included non-Opal card trips, which were excluded from the January data a year earlier. The year-on-year Opal figures were, in fact, down from 303,815 to 300,448 that month.

They fell again in February, from 402,032 to 395,510, according to the Transport for NSW website.

In November 2015, minister for transport Andrew Constance cited falling patronage as a reason for privatising Newcastle’s buses and ferries.

Mr Constance said in April that the government had “rescued” the Newcastle bus network, which is used by only 3.5 per cent of the population.

​Keolis Downer and the government have promised a raft of route changes from next month in response to a community backlash against the new network.

Newcastle Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp said the drop in senior and pensioner figures was indicative of the feedback he had received.

“I have been told what was once an easy trip to shops and services has now become a nightmare of bus changes or late services,” he said.

“These changes have impacted on the most vulnerable in our community, the people who rely on these services the most.

“Despite the government promising that privatising public transport in Newcastle would deliver a world-class transport system, the dwindling number of commuter figures indicate that they have failed to deliver on this commitment.”

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