KEOLIS Downer has been awarded a 10-year contract to operate Newcastle’s public transport system, including the new light rail.
The tender also includes Newcastle buses, ferries and interchanges.
The decision was announced in Newcastle on Monday morning by Premier Mike Baird and Transport Minister Andrew Constance, after Mr Constance addressed a gathering of Newcastle buses drivers at the Hamilton bus depot.
See more in Tuesday’s Newcastle Herald
After the meeting, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) of New South Wales said it “cautiously welcomed” the Keolis Downer agreement, saying it marked the end of an era for Newcastle Buses and Ferries.
Labor state MPs Tim Crakanthorp and Kate Washington were not so optimistic, saying: “With a billion-dolllar blowout on the Sydney CBD light rail, Newcastle deserves to have the same transparency on their major infrastructure project.”
Mr Baird and Mr Constance announced the Keolis Downer decision from the roof of the University of Newcastle’s NeW Space building, where they were joined by the university’s vice-chancellor Caroline McMillen, and a university council member, Geoff Lillis.
Mr Baird also spoke about the university’s decision to secure two hectares of Honeysuckle and railway corridor land immediately north of the NeW Space building, enabling the creation of an education hub that would stretch from the conservatorium in Laman Street along Auckland Street and across into Honeysuckle.
After the roof top announcement Mr Baird and Mr Constance went to the final Property Council of Australia lunch for the year at nearby Newcastle City Hall.
Across the road, in Civic Park, a group of between 40 and 50 protesters kept up their opposition to the government’s light rail plans, with Newcastle Greens councillor Therese Doyle saying the group intended to keep on making their voice heard.
At a media conference on top of the University of Newcastle’s partly built New Space building, the Premier said the Keolis Downer proposal would deliver massive public transport improvements for Hunter commuters.
He said the light rail service would run every 7.5 minutes instead of the 10-minute frequency originally proposed, and the Stockton ferry would run every 15 minutes instead of every half hour.
The Keolis Downer operating company will be called Newcastle Transport and Mr Constance said it would start running the bus and ferry services from July 1 next year. Changes to the existing services would start in 2018 “to minimise disruption” and the light rail was scheduled to open in 2019.
The chief executive of Keolis Downer, Campbell Mason, said all operational staff would be offered work on current terms and conditions.
He confirmed they had been given a five year guarantee of employment.
“Newcastle is undergoing a major transformation,’’ Mr Mason said.
“The investment in light rail will breathe new life into the CBD and a more reliable and efficient public transport system will create a network that is attractive to new users.
“We have been working closely with the Newcastle community for some time, and we will continue to do so as we design a network that locals want.
“All operational staff will be offered continuation of employment with our newly formed company, Keolis Downer Hunter Pty Ltd, on current terms and conditions.
“We are very much looking forward to working with the team to deliver a world class service in Newcastle.
“It’s important that we get this right because the decisions we make now will drive the success of local busiensses, tourism and the character of the city.’’
At the Civic Park protest, Cr Doyle, Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi and Save Our Rail founder Joan Dawson led a crowd of more than 40 people opposed to the light rail project.
"The Baird Government may claim that this is a plan to revitalise Newcastle, but we know that this is all about privatising public transport and selling off NSW bit by bit,” Dr Faruqi said.
"Since the intercity train line into the heart of Newcastle was ripped up, public transport patronage has plummeted, travel times have increased and businesses are moving out. This is not the way to revitalise Newcastle and the Hunter region, but to suffocate it.
"Wholesale privatisation of public transport doesn't work - a private company's ultimate aim is not public service, but maximising profits. It hasn't worked else where, why would it work in Newcastle.
"The Hunter region deserves a world class public transport network owned and operated by the people of NSW. This should be based on an integrated transport vision, not haphazard planning and thought bubbles like the short orphan stretch of light rail that experts say will create chaos in the city."
Rail Tram and Bus union divisional secretary Chris Preston said the union welcomed “better integrated public transport for the city of Newcastle”.
“It’s a great step forward for Newcastle transport workers who can now finally put a face to their future employer, and will soon get some clarity about future work conditions,” Mr Preston said.
“Whilst it’s business as usual for the public transport workers of Newcastle, the RTBU will be in contact with the new operator at the very first available date, to continue to advocate on their behalf throughout this transition.
“Until we know exactly what conditions public bus and ferries workers will be working under come the 1st of July 2017, we will continue to be cautious on their behalf.
“We hope that Keolis Downer’s planned improvements to services in 2018, will have public transport workers and the public they serve at its forefront rather than economic efficiencies that impact on services.
“We look forward to this being a positive project for the people of Newcastle and the Hunter, with smoother public transport integration and much needed revitalisation.”