The Public Transport User

I have found myself catching the bus or train a reasonable number of times recently. Whether’s it’s a trip to Newmarket for a movie, or going into town for a small part of my job recently, it has felt – in some ways – quite liberating to rid myself of the car and get back in touch with public transport. I guess my dream job is some sort of transportation planner who can magically remove Auckland’s car dependency and create the city an awesome public transport system, so it’s good in some respects for me to actually be out there experiencing what things are like at the moment, trying to think of ways they could be done better.

A couple of weeks ago when I caught the train back from the city to my work, it was obvious what the main problem was there: the train was horrifically, terribly slow. I know that there are a reasonable number of stations between Avondale and the city, but it really didn’t seem as though that was what was holding the train up at all. In the end, it just felt like it was a gutless piece of crap that we were riding on, one that could barely make it to 30 kph as it climbed out of Britomart towards Newmarket. Yet even when it possibly could pick up some speed: like the long gap between Mt Albert Station and Avondale station it still putted along like it was waiting for something. Perhaps another train was due to pass through the single-line section of track between Avondale and New Lynn (at least there’s a current project to fix that problem), but it just felt so infuriating and time-wasting to be just edging along on the train, when really the whole advantage of a train is that it doesn’t have to battle with other traffic and that it doesnt’ have to stop as often as a bus. From somewhere like Avondale, a train should be significantly faster in its journey to or from the city than any other means of transportation (I guess perhaps except the car if traffic is light).

I think in the end it did come down to the pathetic state of the current rolling stock (that train was a particularly gutless DMU unit), and also probably areas of track that aren’t up to standard, pathetic signalling, the remaining area of single-track between Avondale and New Lynn…. and so on. But perhaps most of all, it really highlighted to me how essential electrification is to Auckland’s rail future. The train we were on was seriously putting the foot down with a damn loud result as we edged our way up towards Newmarket. In an electric train, I felt we’d surely just zip up that hill in half the time it took on the DMU. The 10 minute trip to Newmarket could be halved to 5 minutes, the 25 minute trip from Britomart to Avondale could be reduced to 15 minutes. Heck…. 15 minutes! It took about 45 minutes to do that same trip on the bus just last night (that’s another story). You wouldn’t have a chance of getting from town to Avondale in 15 minutes at peak hour in a car so all of a sudden catching the train would be the obviously quickest way to get into the city for most people living along the western line (that scenario is already true for many on the eastern and southern lines). As I write this, I hear the enormous thunder of another deisel train head past (the train line isn’t too far away from me) and it just drives home another huge advantage of electrification: the quietness. If people are to be encouraged to live closer to train stations (so that it’s more likely they’ll actually catch the train) then we don’t want them annoyed to hell by the constant roar of a deisel locamotive or DMU as it struggles to pull away from the station. That’s just so 19th century.

But yeah, the other bugbear I’ve had with public transport lately has come from using the bus to get into the city 4-5 times in the last couple of weeks. I have no real problem with the level of service we have in this corner of Auckland: buses come every 15 minutes even during off-peak hours, while my study of peak hour buses along New North Road routes showed that there are often 2-3 minute frequencies in the morning peak: excellent by any standard I reckon. However, the big problem with buses is how damn long they take to get you to where you want to go. On New North Road this isn’t helped by the absense of bus lanes (not quite sure why they’ve never got around to them on this particular arterial, considering they’re on most other main roads that head into the city). However, even when the roads are flowing freely (which they generally have been doing in recent months thanks to higher petrol prices) the bus seems to take an age to get anywhere, simply because boarding times are so damn slow. Catching a peak hour bus out of the city at around 5pm last night really proved to me how pathetic the current system is at dealing with lots of people getting on the bus at one time. Even if most people travelling are using bus cards and the driver doesn’t need to handle money constantly, the system requires so much time to process just one passenger that if there are 20 queued up you end up just sitting there for 2-3 minutes. Multiply that by three or four major ‘pick-up’ stops in the city and it’s no wonder it took about 45 minutes to get from midtown out to Avondale.

I remember Sydney having a great solution to this problem. If you had a bus pass you just fed it into a little machine yourself, it beeped to say the pass was OK and you got on, no interaction with the driver at all. In fact, the machine was located on the opposite side of the entrance to the driver, so if one person was holding things up by searching through their bag for their wallet, and searching through their wallet for some change, people could continue to board, speeding things up enormously. In Rome I remember the buses had a machine at the front and the back, while also having entrances in three locations. This meant things were sped up enormously, a good thing as Rome’s buses were damn busy as a result of their rather undeveloped metro system.

I have heard rumours about smart-card systems coming to Auckland soon. I just hope that whatever ticketing system we have, it enables people to get on the bus a damn sight faster than what happens at the moment.