Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison has accused the state government of encouraging Keolis Downer to “chop up” Newcastle’s bus network by offering it per-passenger incentive payments.
The company said in March that its passenger numbers were up 4.9 per cent in January, a year-on-year rise from 304,330 to 319,360.
But Hunter Labor MPs have argued that the company has divided some direct routes into two and sometimes three separate services under a new network introduced in January.
“Is this an incentive to make the routes shorter, forcing commuters to change buses, therefore increasing the patronage statistics and the patronage incentive payment?” Ms Harrison asked minister for transport Andrew Constance in parliament on Thursday.
“It is now becoming clear why the minister has been talking up additional services and increased patronage numbers – so he can reward Keolis Downer with a big, fat bonus which he signed off on in the contract.
“There is no question that the number of people using our buses needs to be increased. We all want that.
“But this patronage incentive payment rewards the bus operator for chopping bus routes up into pieces.”
She said the incentive payment was “hidden” on page 239 of the government’s “heavily redacted” 10-year contract with Keolis Downer.
Mr Constance responded by saying the government had given Keolis Downer an incentive to attract more people to public transport.
“We’ve seen, from January to January last year, an increase in patronage on Newcastle transport,” he said.
“So, absolutely, very happy to incentivise the private sector to operate the state’s bus network in the way that they do.”
The government and Keolis Downer have foreshadowed route changes in light of customer complaints and two public rallies since the new network began.
The new timetable will not be released until next month, but Keolis Downer said on Thursday that the changes would have a “minor” knock-on effect on other services.
“Bus network refinements will see minor adjustments to other timetables as we work to optimise resources and better meet customer demand,” a company spokesperson said.
Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery feared the changes could lead to cuts in her electorate.
“From what I have been told by people working closely on the review, there are going to be cuts to services from Wallsend to Newcastle,” she said.
“I have also been advised that … all of the small changes that should be made to improve the service will be ignored.
“Residents in parts of Shortland will still not be able to get to their nearest major shopping centre at Jesmond without going to Wallsend and changing buses.
“I don't want a complete reversion to the old routes and timetables. I am happy to admit there have been some improvements in services.”
Transport for NSW weighed into the debate on Thursday night, saying the number of passengers transferring from one bus to another had changed little since the new network began.
“Newcastle went more than 10 years without any changes to its bus network and passenger numbers sank to a point where only three per cent of the local population used public transport,” a spokesperson told the Herald.
“The transport network was overhauled this year, based on data and the feedback of passengers and drivers.
“The result is more than 1200 additional services, providing more options to get people where they want to go.
“The total number of people changing buses remains low, with an increase of just 2.5 per cent compared to the old network. Still less than one in five passengers changes bus services.
“We will not apologise for implementing a system that encourages the operator to meet the needs of more in the community and to improve its service.”
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