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Newcastle commuters to be shifted to light rail

Feb 23, 2017Bus Express News

Reported in the Newcastle Herald: Newcastle’s public buses are likely to run down King Street and Honeysuckle Drive while the light rail is being built, and most services will terminate at the Wickham interchange once the trams are operating on Hunter Street.

The free buses that have run throughout the CBD since 2004 are also likely to go once light rail starts.

That’s the situation that emerges after discussions with various players in the privatisation and renewal of the city’s public transport system, including the Rail Tram and Bus Union, whose members include Newcastle government bus drivers.

LOOKING AFTER THE TROOPS: Rail, Tram and Bus Union divisional secretary Chris Preston on a visit from Sydney at the Hamilton bus depot in 2016. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers.

Although the NSW government and Transport for Newcastle operator Keolis Downer say that final decisions are yet to be made about the shape of the city’s new public transport system, the light rail Review of Environmental Factors describes the removal of “seven existing bus stops” along Hunter Street and Scott Street, together with “new stops in Watt Street, Wharf Road (two stops) and Centenary Road”.

RTBU secretary Chris Preston said on Wednesday that the disruption on Hunter Street during light rail construction meant the only alternative was to take buses along the streets either side of Hunter Street; Honeysuckle Drive on the harbour side, and King Street to the south.

The government has remained coy about the way that buses would move through the CBD once the light rail was operating from 2019, saying only that “a number of bus routes will continue to travel beyond Wickham”.

But Mr Preston said there was little doubt about the eventual outcome.

“Given that the government and the operator will want to maximise the number of people on the light rail system, the only logical thing to do is to terminate as many buses as possible at the interchange,” Mr Preston said.

“The same thing goes for the free buses. You are not going to run a free bus beside a light rail system that people will have to pay to use.”

Mr Preston said the existing bus “layover” bay next to the old Newcastle rail station would also go.

This was because the state government had earmarked the site for development, and because having a driver layover some 2.5 kilometres from the end of most routes would add 5 kilometres per trip of dead running time, which was a cost the operator would want to avoid.

Told of the union belief that most buses would terminate at Wickham, Keolis Downer said: “A number of bus routes will continue to travel beyond Wickham into Newcastle CBD. Detailed service planning will continue in consultation with the community in the coming months to inform the final network design.”

As the Herald reported last week, Hunter Street is likely to be shut, block by block, for up to 14 weeks at a time once construction of the light rail begins. Keolis Downer takes over Newcastle Buses and the Stockton ferry from July.

Revitalising Newcastle program director Michael Cassel said Keolis Downer’s bus changes, together with light rail from 2019, would give Novocastrians “more public transport options than ever before”.

“The current transport system in Newcastle isn’t working,” Mr Cassel said. “Public transport patronage has dropped and service levels are below standard.”

He said the redesigned network had not been finalised. There would be no changes to the fare-free zone until “transport service improvements are implemented”.

A spokesperson for Keolis Downer said about 270 Newcastle Buses employees attended its recent information sessions.

“This enabled them to meet the management team, understand our approach and ask questions,” a company spokesperson said. “We will continue the dialogue with the staff in the coming weeks.”

“All staff covered by awards and agreements will be offered continuation of employment with Keolis Downer. We are continuing discussions with union representatives to negotiate new enterprise bargaining agreements.”

Drivers have told the Herald they are concerned about keeping their terms and conditions, which are generally regarded as better than those enjoyed by drivers in private bus companies.

Mr Preston confirmed that Keolis Downer wanted a “greenfields” agreement with the union, an arrangement that treats Newcastle Buses as a new business, rather than a continuation of an existing service. The drivers would also move from the NSW industrial relations system to the federal Fair Work system. Mr Preston expected Keolis Downer would need “more staff, not fewer”, because of the need to operate the light rail.

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