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Continuing on . . . The Timaru Link bus service will continue while the on-demand trial runs next year. PHOTO: GRETA YEOMAN

by Greta Yeoman

South Canterbury’s on-demand bus trial could end up costing more than current services, if comparative trials in New South Wales are an indication.

Environment Canterbury staff visited several locations in the Australian state trialling on-demand services during the council’s research phase. However, not all trials had proved to be cost-effective.

According to government agency Transport for NSW, the average cost per passenger of operating the on-demand services across the trial areas was $34.56 per trip, the Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this year.

While fares remained between $2.60 and $5.60 for passengers, this meant a higher cost for whomever was footing the remainder of the bill – in this case, taxpayers.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, one service on the NSW Central Coast had cost just over $480,000 to run a 3km service for just 233 passengers – meaning it cost $2067 per person per trip.

In Manly, in northern Sydney, however, an on-demand trip cost $11 per trip per passenger, with the passenger contributing $3.10 in fares.

ECan public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon

ECan public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon said the set-up cost of the on-demand service in Timaru would mean cost recovery would be “poor in the short term”, particularly as the regional council would continue to run the Link service and “invest heavily” in community engagement.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the level of community engagement as to whether the service is successful.

“As it is a public transport service, the service increases in viability when more people use it.”

The council will launch a closed-service pilot for a select group of trial passengers in a few months, followed by a 14-month trial of the full on-demand service in Timaru from April next year.

Mr Gibbon said the council expected the flexibility of the service would be “significantly more convenient” for passengers.

“There are many journeys in Timaru that simply aren’t catered for with the current fixed route service that would be very attractive in an on-demand model, opening up public transport to a much wider audience than at present.”

While the council was not sure how much fares would cost yet, the overall cost of the service could be higher for ratepayers.

ECan has stated that the total cost of the Timaru trial (including continuing to run the Link service) would be a maximum of $2.18million.

Just over half of that would be funded by the NZ Transport Agency.

NZTA regional relationships director Jim Harland said the project was “a really interesting proposition” and one it had been working closely with ECan on.

ECan’s public transport contracts in Timaru cost on average $1million per year according to the regional council’s 2019-20 annual plan, of which just under $370,000 comes out of targeted rates.

This compares to more than $52million for Christchurch transport contracts.

The $1million does not account for funds used for IT systems or contract complaints/service issues funding.

The current average subsidy for ECan services in Timaru across the 2018-19 financial year is $4.43, while fares cost about $1.65 for an adult on the MetroCard.

While the desired farebox contribution to the public transport service was between 40% and 50%, with NZTA and other grants topping up the rest, Timaru’s farebox contribution for 2018-19 was just under 20%, Mr Gibbon said.