November 27, 2004

Fullers woes

Getting home yesterday from work was a real hard slog. First the bus was stuck in traffic - not an uncommon event in Auckland - but the thing was: it wasn't even raining! Where are the green bus lanes where you need them like on K Road and down Queen Street? Do these planning and council people ever take a bus to work?
I just got to the ferry on time, it's always a race against the clock, but really, should a 6km bus ride take 55 minutes?
The boat was, as usual, the decrepit Jetraider, a real 80s icon if ever there was one: all flashy and grunty, you half expect there would be flames painted on its sides like on less discerning boy racer cars, and I think when it was first put in service there actually were. Now it's just a sad shadow of its former self, a rusty, diesel smelly bucket, affectionately known (not!) by the Waiheke commuters who have to endure it daily as the Vomit Comet or Death Raider.
Being Friday night there was about half of New Zealand trying to get on the ferry, with everything, including the kitchen sink in some cases, for a nice weekend on the rock. Since the Fullers Ferry Company makes so much money out of these weekend visitors ($25.50 return, for a 40 minute, 17km trip - surely one of the most expensive stretches of water you can cross in the world) they say: to hell with the comfort of daily commuters, who fork out almost $3,000 a year in season tickets. It's a typical example of a captive audience held hostage and screwed to the max by a monopoly.
It wouldn't be so bad if only they maintained their boats to a reasonable safety standard, so we don't have to endanger our lives alongside our bank balances. In late August their flagship, the Superflyte, had an engine fire and rescue services had to assist in getting 300-odd passengers off the boat. It's been out ever since and there is currently not even a possible date of return to service. You really have to ask how a small fire in the engine causes it to be out for 4 months, except maybe past neglect that allowed so much crud to build up in the engines. Perhaps as a monopoly operator you don't need to take care of things like passenger safety, comfort or your capital stock. Just put prices up (they did in October), cut services, put on rustbuckets instead and our shareholders will be right.
So, all you free marketeers, give me your suggestions. Trying to get some serious competition on the Waiheke run has a sad and troublesome history, because any entrant in the market faces an enormous obstacle: a strategic alliance between Fullers and the bus company Stagecoach which allows them to offer integrated season tickets - something that is really, really long overdue in the whole of the city's public tranportation system. Waiheke commuters, due to their sheer numbers, also pay for the upkeep of all the wharves over the whole city's ferry system. This is in effect a "congestion charge" but applied on commuters who don't actually use any roads, but leave space for all you landlubbers to clog the motorways.
Back to the ferry trip last night. It was a breezy southwesterly gale which caused said rustbucket to lurch side to side and overflowing dustbins to be sent flying through the masses. Maybe it was a small mercy that no-one was actually seasick, but it was a close call: in the middle of the harbour Jetraider lost power in one of its engines and we chugged happily at half speed through the rolling waves to Matiatia, to arrive about 30 minutes late. Not an announcement, no apology, nada.

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