Locals step in as bus service fails

by Lauren Pattemore - Jan 30, 2023

Local commuters are stepping in to help stranded bus users as Queenstown's public service continues to be plagued by cancellations and delays.

Among the grateful recipients of the Good Samaritan drivers, frazzled tourists facing one-hour wait times for buses with unmissable flights on the line.

Queenstown Lakes District councillor Esther Whitehead says she's been pulling over to pick up would-be bus goers.

She admits the act may be controversial, but says for her it comes down to being “a lot more practical-minded than safety conscious”.

Plus, she's an advocate for car-pooling, when you can.

Esther Whitehead picks up hitchers and bus-hopefuls when she's in her car.

“I just find the endless traffic with one person per car quite shocking…I always try and pick people up if they're hitching or if there's loads of people at a bus stop and it's safe. I will sometimes pull over beforehand.”

Ms Whitehead’s own 10-kilometre trip into town is usually done by bike, so she’s only picked up people about five times from a bus stop.

Most times, they've been tourists, “really stoked” to receive a lift, she says.

“There was one time when it was a local person trying to get to work and they were pretty desperate because the bus hadn't arrived or it was running late.”

The bus services are “completely dysfunctional”, Ms Whitehead says.

On the brunt end of these dysfunctional services has been Katie Howes, holidaying from Auckland.

On arriving in Queenstown, Ms Howes says she waited at the airport’s bus stop to catch the number one route to Fernhill to take her into the CBD.

When the first number one bus pulled up at the stop, it dropped off passengers, but didn’t let anyone on, she says.

There were approximately 15 people waiting to do so, and Ms Howes says she wasn't sure why the bus moved on without them.

The wait for the next bus ended up being an hour, but she was happy to wait, she says:

“It’s different when you’re on holiday time...If I was pressured to get to the airport, it would be different.” 

Today, when Crux caught up with her at the Stanley Street stop, she’d been waiting half an hour, hoping for the 12.02pm service, but it hadn’t come. There had been no alert of this bus cancellation from the Otago Regional Council, via its list of cancelled services for today. She got on the 12.25pm bus instead. 

Another group of three – Australian tourists from Wollongong and Brisbane – say they’d been waiting since 10.45am for a number one route bus. Crux spoke to them at 12.20pm.

The trio had a flight at 3.30pm, and a growing anxiety of missing it – they’d resulted to booking a taxi for $55 to take them to the airport instead.

When a bus servicing another route pulled up, they say they asked the driver if he had any information about when their bus might come, and he’d replied saying “I’ve got no idea”.

They told Crux: “No one can tell us when the next bus is going to come.”

The bus arrived at 12.25pm and they were able to use public transport to get to the airport.

But as tourists sit with uncertainty about when a bus may arrive, it seems providing lifts is increasingly common, with a social media post last night revealing many locals are jumping in to help stranded visitors.

Queenstown resident and business-owner Kaari Schlebach has lost count of the people she's picked up over the past few months.

Seeing the amount of people waiting for a ride her present philosophy is: "If I'm driving in a direction, I will always stop".

Last week, she picked up four tourists from Stanley Street, distressed after bus cancellations.

"They were almost in tears, because not only was the bus super late, but it was really difficult for them to get an Uber and it was charging a huge amount.

"I think the situation is really quite serious, because we're letting a lot of people down by not showing up - especially for people going to the airport."

Another local who spoke to Crux says she's rarely picked up a hitchhiker before, but this weekend the lines at bus stops motivated her to stop and help.

"It was very upsetting to see so many people waiting for buses that were not coming."

The alerts can be confusing to read on the Orbus website, and especially so for tourists, she says.

"I think it would be nice as a community to help out during exceptional times like this."

A problem: local road rules prevent general road users stopping at designated bus stops.

"People are nervous about getting fined...maybeif they did away with the fines, then locals could help out more. Or if they had a designated area where cars could stop to pick up hitchhikers or tourists.

"There are people that want to help. We just need a better way to facilitate it."

But, for now, there's no budging from the Queenstown Lakes District Council, who's advised drivers of private vehicles pulling into bus stops may attract a $40 fine.

“You cannot stop, stand or park in a bus stop, including stopping to let people out of or into your vehicle,” a spokesperson for the council says.

“We encourage anyone who needs to drop off or pick people up to use regular parking spaces or loading zones which allow for this.”

More drivers soon onboard in coming weeks

The Otago Regional Council announced a retracted bus service in the region more than six months ago.

However, while Dunedin bus users can expect buses to be back to regular services from Wednesday, the ORC has told Queenstown users they’ll need to perserve with less frequent and more unreliable services until at least June.

A quick count of last-minute cancelled services online shows 80 buses never made it to their schedule stops today, Monday January 30. Cancellations are growing in number, Crux reported in early December of 50 no-show services in one day

ORC's transport manager Doug Rodgers says bus driver recruitment is ongoing and accommodation is proving a challenge for operator Ritchies.

However, new staff are on their way.

"There are drivers going through the immigration system and these drivers will arrive over the coming weeks. In about two weeks the operator is also bringing in drivers from other branches," he says.

Read more:

Mayor Lewers launches full attack on ORC as bus service fails

There's 100 coming to Wellington, so where's our bus drivers?


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