The privatisation of Newcastle buses and ferries kicked in last Friday night.
French company Keolis Downer now runs the show under the business name “Sacré Bleu”, I mean Newcastle Transport.
The same company will also operate the light rail once it’s up and rolling.
Privatisation has been cautiously welcomed by the NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union, which applauds the offer of ongoing employment to members for the next five years on the same terms and conditions.
And fair enough. But as a commuter I wonder where all this change is heading?
“Revenue” springs to mind as Newcastle Transport announced the introduction of fare compliance officers.
Bus drivers will tell you it’s been a problem since Opal cards were introduced, and that Keolis hasn’t taken on running the buses out of the goodness of its heart.
A period of re-education is coming, starting with “you’re supposed to pay”.
Upheaval may be another outcome.
A free bus trip along Hunter Street on any particular day is already pretty stimulating.
Abolishing that, as is mooted, will surely add to the colour and movement.
Having to pay on light rail will send a further shiver up the hip pocket nerve, even if you have money.
Particularly if you’ve had to pay for the bus ride to the new Wickham transport interchange.
It’s a little unclear at the moment, but will commuters coming into town be expected to get off the bus at the interchange and pay again for the light rail up town?
It already costs you $4.50 one-way to come in from, say, Belmont, but at least it gets you all the way.
Times $4.50 by two for the return trip ($9) and then that by five for the working week ($45) and you start to look for reasons why you wouldn’t take the car.
Apart from saving the planet, the most pertinent is the cost of parking, which continues to rise along with apartments around Honeysuckle.
The current minimum sling is around $8 a day, but with the squeeze on space inevitable, that cost is sure to climb.
Parking in nearby suburban streets, where meters don’t exist, yet, and walking to work, has been a natural reaction.
But it’s only a matter of time before those streets are saturated too and economics point you back to public transport.
What then from our privatised masters as we hit the price tipping point?
Profit and cop it? Or mass transit with public amenity?
“A more reliable and efficient public transport system will create a network that is attractive to new users,” Keolis CEO Campbell Mason said last December when the light rail changes were announced.
“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.”
Most locals won’t want a network that makes it more economic to use a car.
If the goal is to get more people on public transport my hope is they settle on an “all you can eat”-type fare.
Say, $30 week for as many bus and light rail trips as you like to anywhere on the system.
It’s hardly standing room only on the buses, and jacking prices up won’t fix that.
If they go for volume and affordability over squeezing us dry, users will pay.
It might even reassure the public that change has been for their benefit all along.