NEWCASTLE HERALD: Putting Newcastle’s buses to trial
Herald reporter Michael Parris
spent Tuesday morning putting Keolis Downer’s new bus routes and timetables to the test.
8.40am: So I need to get from Merewether to Lambton for a medical appointment at 9.30. The Transport for NSW online trip planner gives me two options, one involving an eight-minute walk and a change of buses, the other a 13-minute walk and a direct bus. I take the latter. I’m running late so I walk the 780 metres to Union Street, near The Junction Public School, in seven minutes. I check that the six-digit number on the trip planner matches the stop number. The stop displays no route numbers, timetables or maps. Until Sunday we had a stop 100 metres from our house. The longer distance is a hike for the elderly or anyone carrying shopping bags.
8.55am: The bus (a white one) arrives on time. I step on and am greeted with a friendly “good morning” from the driver. The only other passenger is an elderly woman. No sign of bricks or abuse. We pick up another woman at Marketown at 9.02. It occurs to me I could catch this bus to work at Honeysuckle if the weather was fine. We sit idling for a minute because we’re ahead of schedule and do so again opposite the Store in Hunter Street, where our load swells to five passengers. For most of the 32-minute trip the bus is nearly empty. It arrives on time, but again the walk from Newcastle Road down to the Lambton shops would be a challenge for some.
10.15am: Appointment over, I’ve chosen Lindeman Close, Eleebana, at random, as my next destination. The trip planner says it will take about an hour and a half, about four times longer than by car, and involve three or four buses. Lambton to Charlestown requires a five-minute walk to Croudace Street then a straightforward trip via the hospital. The 11 is about five minutes late but gets to Charlestown in time to connect with the 14, which is also five minutes late, although the trip planner says it is running on time. Most of the seats on the 11 are full, and the 14 has about 20 people on board as it leaves Charlestown.
11am: I strike up some talk with fellow travellers, and the vibe is mostly confusion and bitterness. A cheerful young woman from Mayfield says she thinks the Newcastle bus system is “fantastic”. Her modus operandi is to turn up at a stop and wait for the right bus to come along. She hasn’t noticed much change since the new routes started on Sunday. Other passengers are less happy, including a woman from Jesmond who doesn’t drive and doesn’t use a smart phone. She says her regular journey to Kotara is now more complicated and longer. Some people complain about buses being late. Other travellers express frustration to the drivers. An elderly couple appear to be stranded at Charlestown because their regular bus no longer exists. I’ll have to change at Belmont and double back to Eleebana.
11.30am: “It’s terrible because old people can’t read the timetables. It’s very stressful. The politicians get driven around in chauffeured limousines.” This is part of a conversation I overhear on the number 41 from Belmont to Eleebana. The elderly lady is not the only one struggling with the new bus routes. If I didn’t have my phone, I’d be lost. There’s no route maps at the stops, which makes it very hard to work out where each new service goes, and the timetables are small and tough to read, even for someone with reasonable vision. Still, the 41 arrives on time and I’m getting close to Lindeman Close.
11.55am: I’ve made it, an hour and 35 minutes after leaving Lambton. This also might have been a problematic journey under the old network, the kind you would do in a car if you could. But now I’ve hailed Keolis Downer’s new on-demand service trialling in this part of Lake Macquarie. I’ve used the service’s app, which is linked to my credit card. It tells me a bus will arrive in six minutes right where I’m standing, which is not at a bus stop. In fact, it arrives in just five minutes for my return journey to Charlestown. The regular buses took 60 minutes for this trip, via Belmont. This one takes 11 minutes and costs $3 (during the trial). I’m the only one using it. It’s a no-brainer. I’d encourage anyone in the service area to give it a try. Concession fares are available and you can order it at 1300 590 506 and pay cash to the driver if you don’t have a smartphone.
12.20pm: After the veritable triumph of the on-demand bus, it’s back to the trip planner. It doesn’t seem to think Marketown or Hunter Street are closer to Honeysuckle than the art gallery in Laman Street (?) or the Wickham interchange. Doesn’t it know the rail line’s been cut! Anyway, I take its advice to get the 14 to the gallery and walk.
1pm: I step off the 14 at a fancy new sign (they’re blue) in King Street. It clearly states the route numbers for that stop but still doesn’t have a map. I arrive atwork 50 minutes after setting off from Charlestown.
So what to take from a morning on the buses?
I didn’t see any Keolis Downer “travel concierges” or pink-shirted service staff. I would have thought that, at the least, one should have been stationed at the busy interchange in Charlestown, and probably one at Belmont, given the network is only a few days old and lots of passengers are confused.
The on-demand trial gets a big tick of approval. Three of these 22-seaters are cruising around Dudley, Whitebridge, Mount Hutton, Windale, Tingira Heights, Eleebana, Warners Bay, Gateshead and bits of Charlestown. I’d use them to go to Charlestown Square and connect with regular buses. It would be great to see the service rolled out across the city if it’s viable.
Many people are confused about the new routes, and the lack of timetables and maps at bus stops aren’t helping. Keolis Downer says it is busy updating them, but it seems odd this hasn’t happened sooner.
The walking distance to some stops is too much for many people, especially the elderly. It is difficult to quantify how much these distances have changed under the new network, but anecdotally (and based on my own neighbourhood) it is a significant new barrier to people using buses.
Many commuters have complained about once-direct routes from places such as Swansea now requiring one or more changes. Charlestown to Eleebana was long and convoluted. Keolis has said transfers between buses will be smooth, and my limited experience was that they worked quite well, but if travel times have stretched too far, that’s another reason to stick with the car. For people who don’t drive, longer travel times can have a serious impact.