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Lee Sturmey, left, and Jill Berge are frustrated a transport service from Te Puru to Thames was abruptly stopped after three weeks. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

Left stranded: ‘unimpressed’ by trial mixup

Issues with the trial Connector van service from Thames to Coromandel Town have left Te Puru resident Lee Sturmey feeling like her independence has been ripped away all over again. 

The trial service, funded by a $40,000 Ministry of Social Development (MSD) storm recovery grant, is being run by the Thames-Coromandel District Council to “reconnect our communities with healthcare, education, appointments, work opportunities and whānau”. 

The trial began on December 18 and is scheduled to run until March 18. For four days each week, passengers can book a free seat on an 11-seater commuter van running between Thames and Coromandel Town. 

When Lee heard about the service, she was ecstatic. 

“I used to drive, and then six years ago I started having seizures which were diagnosed as epilepsy,” Lee said. 

“I’ve missed my independence so when this connector thing came up I was so grateful because [it meant] not having to depend on people; being able to go into town and do my own thing in my own time.”

Lee immediately contacted Coromandel Taxis, one of two providers contracted to run the trial, and booked a seat. 

“I texted and said, ‘Am I able to catch it from Te Puru to Thames on that particular date?’, and I got back a text saying, ‘no problem’,” Lee said. 

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All was well for the first three weeks of the trial. Lee and her neighbour, Jill Berge, who also doesn’t drive, booked seats each week, walking to the Te Puru Dairy to catch the bus to Thames to get groceries and prescriptions. 

“[My husband] was really sick before Christmas,” Jill said.

“I was able to go in, pick up a prescription that he needed urgently… And then he ended up in hospital and I was able to go in and visit him.” 

Then, on January 8, Lee was told she could no longer be picked up. 

“Coromandel Taxis actually texted me and let me know that the council had actually stopped – prohibited, that was the wording – all en-route pickups and drop offs,” Lee said. 

“It really just floored me, I felt like the mat had been yanked out from my feet.”

The cancellation left Lee scrambling to find a ride to make it to her MSD appointment. 

“I feel like I’m putting people out by having to go, ‘can I catch a ride in with you, can I do this’,” Lee said. 

When Jill phoned the council, it confirmed the service would no longer stop in Te Puru, and she was advised to get a taxi. 

“I can’t afford [taxis] being on a benefit,” Lee said. 

Jill’s followup email was replied to with a quote from a council press release: “We’re in the process of finalising some stops along the route to increase accessibility. We will share the locations once they are finalised and comply with safety requirements”. 

Lee also emailed the council but said she never received a response. 

“I just wondered why council didn’t do their homework to begin with. Why set up an awesome initiative and then go, ‘Waka Kotahi has not given authorisation?’ [It] just seems a little bit shortsighted,” Lee said.

“It’s almost like it’s been set up to fail.”

Five new stops have been confirmed for the trial of the Coromandel Town-Thames Connector van service. FILE PHOTO: SUPPLIED/TCDC

In a statement, council told The Profile the connector van was initially only supposed to stop in Coromandel and Thames, saying a direct service was planned to begin with in order to have it in place before Christmas. While en-route stops were planned, they had not been approved by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency at the time the service began.

“We are making sure any stops align with Waka Kotahi NZTA guidelines and are safe places for

both vehicles to stop and people to wait,” council said.

“Discussions with the service providers prior to the start of the service included council’s intention to have the en-route stops included once the locations had been finalised.

“It appears one of the providers included the on-demand en-route service from the outset. The en-route stops were discontinued once council staff clarified with the provider that the service was direct until we had identified locations that met Waka Kotahi NZTA guidelines and sign-posted these.

“We believe this affected two people and we would like to apologise for any inconvenience or confusion that was caused by this change.” 

A council spokesperson later told The Profile the miscommunication was not the fault of the provider, and was a genuine mistake.

“They’ve been amazing to work with on the project and we both just want to make sure the service is good for the communities,” they said.

“We don’t have any issues with them as a provider.”

Coromandel Taxis declined to comment, saying all communication needed to go through council.

The council also confirmed to The Profile it would be making stops in Te Puru, Waiomu, Tapu, Te Mata Point and Manaia from February 7.

Both Lee and Jill said the most frustrating aspect of the whole ordeal, aside from no longer being able to use the service, was the lack of clear communication from council. 

“I feel like they haven’t promoted it that well,” Jill said. 

She said she and others of an older generation weren’t online regularly, and she was concerned the trial might not receive enough attention to be successful.

“If Lee hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known,” Jill said.

“People are isolated in their homes because they have no way of getting anywhere… Any service we would settle for, any means of getting into town and back.”  

A council newsletter said 130 passengers had used the service in its first four weeks of operation.

Council said it had also taken feedback about communication on board, and would be increasing its advertising for the service, including through offline channels such as newspapers, radio stations, tourism operators and community groups. 

“We are welcoming all feedback, as the trial allows us to work through any concerns people may

have. We very much would like to see the service succeed, if there is public demand for it.”

The Waikato Regional Council, which is responsible for public transport, is currently considering potential bus services for the Coromandel Peninsula in its 2024-2034 long term plan, TCDC said.