The Transport Amendment Act 1983 changed the licensing system and ended government fare-setting. Coach companies no longer had to show a service was needed, just that they could deliver it safely and reliably. In 2009, the regulatory body was the NZ Transport Agency.
In 1991, New Zealand Railways Road Services was privatised. Its long-distance services were bought by the InterCity Group, made up of the country’s largest private coach companies.
In the early 2000s, InterCity Group was by far the biggest coach company, carrying 1.5 million passengers a year – about 1.1 million New Zealanders, and the rest international tourists.
In the late 1990s Renee Snelgrove became New Zealand’s youngest female passenger coach driver at the age of 18, driving for the family firm, Tranzit Group. A decade on, she was a director of the company, as well as an employee, and a mother. ‘Driving coaches is addictive,’ she says. ‘You’re out on the road going somewhere and being in control of your own world. But when you look in the rear vision mirror and see 50 heads bobbing around behind you, you certainly feel a great sense of responsibility.’1
Ritchies Coachlines and Tranzit Group, which are also both owners of the InterCity Group, are family firms that have flourished in the era of deregulation and privatisation.
Ritchies Coachlines, owned by the Ritchie family, is the largest privately-owned coach and bus operator in Australasia. It started in Temuka in 1937, and mainly did school runs for its first 30 years. In the early 2000s it operated throughout New Zealand on long-distance routes, and provided charters, tours and urban transport.
The Snelgrove family owns and runs Tranzit Group. Albert Snelgrove started the Grey Bus Service (later the Blue Bus Company) with a 19-seater Dodge coach in Carterton in 1924, later moving to Masterton.
In 2007–8, 1.27 million tourists visiting New Zealand (56% of international visitors) travelled by coach. At the top of the market were luxury coaches with leather seats equipped with individual television screens and internet connections. At the other end were ‘hop on, hop off’ services for which backpackers bought a pass that could be used over months.
Hamish Nuttall came up with what he calls ‘a unique New Zealand solution’ to long-distance bus travel when he set up the Naked Bus in 2006. The company plugs into existing services, owning few coaches itself. With an internet-only booking system, it offers ticket prices at less than its competitors – the first seat on every service is just $1. ‘Because New Zealand’s population is so dispersed it’s difficult to provide public transport, so finding a low-cost solution is important,’ says Nuttall, an Oxford University graduate who came to New Zealand to work as a transport consultant.2
Kiwi Bus Builders of Tauranga are New Zealand’s main builder of coaches. New Zealand Motor Bodies, which closed in 1993, was previously New Zealand’s big name in coach manufacturing and exporting.
The Bus and Coach Association New Zealand acts as a lobby group for both coach and city bus operators, which had their own separate organisations until 1965.