Put simply, 2010 has been a pretty shocking year so far for rail in Auckland. Despite two significant milestones: the opening of Newmarket station and the New Lynn rail trench, I think generally things have been worse than last year. This is illustrated in the problems faced around when Newmarket station opened, long waits suffered by Western Line travellers while drivers change ends at Newmarket, shocking performance statistics for January, numerous breakdowns occurring (including on Monday last week on the first day university was back) and poor press resulting from shocking customer service.
It seems to me that there are ultimately three issues:
- KiwiRail still seem to be doing a terrible job at avoiding points and signalling failures. There were 406 such failures on the Auckland Rail Network alone within the last year. I realise that it’s tricky to avoid such events with crappy outdated infrastructure, but a lot of the problems seem to happen in areas that have been more recently upgraded – like Britomart and Newmarket.
- The structural separation between the various agencies involved in running the train system means that nobody takes ownership of the problems. This is particularly evident when comparing things to Wellington, where recent problems there led to big public apologies from KiwiRail. Where’s our public apology for the 36% on-time performance on the Western Line for January?
- The trains themselves seem particularly unreliable of late. Discussion on the Campaign for Better Transport Forum, with input from staff working in the system, suggests that an unusually high number of trains aren’t even operating because of mechanical problems.
I have discussed the first two issues at length previously, so for now let’s focus on the third matter – increased mechanical failures. While the main reason for these problems is the fact that the newest engines driving our trains around Auckland are almost 30 years old, and naturally these will become more unreliable over time, it would seem as though one reason for increased mechanical problems would be if the amount of maintenance being undertaken had been cut back.
Now I don’t know if there has been a cutback on maintenance, but what does become obvious if you have a good dig through ARTA’s financial statements is that there has definitely been a funding squeeze put on them in recent times. Let’s have a look at their “income statement” for January 2010: I have highlighted what I consider to be particularly interesting parts of it: Looking at the income side of things first, it is clear that ARTA’s budget has been revised from an original, with the result being a cut back of about $15 million. Most of this cut back was from reduced NZTA funding – most probably the result of the roads-obssessed Government Policy Statement, which revised down the amount of money NZTA were allowed to spend on public transport. The ARC also seems to have reduced its funding of ARTA from what was previously anticipated.
Unsurprisingly, a $15 million reduction in income is likely to result in some pretty significant consequences. And this comes through most drastically in the “Rail Contract” part of ARTA’s budget expenditure, where $11 million has been cut back from the original budget. Now I don’t know what that $11 million cut has actually meant in real terms – but it seems as though some of the money “saved” has come from a reduced amount of maintenance on the trains , hence the current problems. I also suspect that if we hadn’t had this $11 million cut we might be seeing more weekend and evening trains.
When I moaned about the Government Policy Statement back in May last year, this was the kind of thing that I was worried about.