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Message to ARTA: please just get the basics right

As I noted a couple of days ago it has been a pretty horrific year for Auckland’s train system so far, with signalling failures, points failures and train failures seemingly occurring on a daily basis (quite literally actually). In that previous post I questioned whether the $11 million cutback to the rail contract was behind many of these problems (the train breakdowns, the daily signal and points failures are KiwiRail’s fault). It seems that trains running in Auckland this evening on the Western Line were subjected to another typical “day at the office” - a points failure leading to 45 minute delays.

I think it’s worthwhile doing a bit of a comparison between how the rail problems faced by Auckland and Wellington in recent weeks have been dealt with. Let’s start with Wellington, where a couple of weeks ago there were some serious problems relating to electric wires  that were not properly fixed during overnight maintenance, causing huge problems. KiwiRail got blasted in the Dominion Post Editorial, which had this to say:

On Tuesday 369 people were stuck on a train to Upper Hutt for two hours after a power failure halted all trains in and out of the capital. “No one told us anything,” complained a passenger. “We were locked up and were going nowhere. We were not allowed outside.”

The previous day 2000 commuters were delayed for up to two hours when another power fault brought services to a standstill. Some passengers waited more than an hour for replacement buses to show up. Others walked to work along the lines.

This week’s breakdowns are just the latest in a string of problems that have infuriated passengers over the past 12 months as historic under-investment in the commuter network and a $600 million upgrade have coincided to create what KiwiRail project manager David Gordon calls a “perfect storm”.

Passengers have been delayed by power faults, equipment failures, slips and contractor errors and, last winter, were left to shiver in carriages without working heaters.

Faced with such a difficult operating environment, KiwiRail might have been expected to do its utmost to retain customer loyalty by informing passengers of the cause and likely length of delays and having alternative forms of transport on hand to minimise inconvenience.

Instead it has operated as if its customers have no choice but to put up with its erratic services.

In response, KiwiRail actually did something. There was a free day’s travel as compensation for the problems and a real commitment to sort things out it would seem. Rail is taken seriously in Wellington and the trains are expected to work, so when something goes wrong because there’s only one agency involved (KiwiRail) things can be sorted out.

Meanwhile, back in Auckland, it’s arguable that we suffer (on a smaller scale, but far more frequently) significantly more problems with our rail network. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there were 406 signal or points failures on the Auckland rail network in the last year alone, and in January only 36% of Western Line trains reached the destination less than 5 minutes late, while 10% didn’t even reach their destination at all. And yet what have we heard from ARTA or KiwiRail about these horrific problems in Auckland?

Zilch.

Instead, we get bombarded with media releases about fun, nice to have, events and promotions that ARTA’s running. Like tomorrow’s Walk2Work promotion, which I’m sure is a good idea, but how about we sort those trains out? Or a “one-stop-shop” calendar for finding out about sustainable travel events, or some promotion with the Blues rugby team, or the refurbishment of the Maxx Website (without actually updating the horrifically outdated mapping system behind the scenes) or the bizarre “Make a Change” campaign. These are all “nice”, but once again please can we get the basics right first? Can we get more than two out of five trains running on time on the Western Line, can we ensure that 10% of trains don’t fail to make it to their destination? Can we get some progress updates on how integrated ticketing is coming along? Can we start implementing a paper-based integrated fare system like was promised “within a few months” back in 2008?

Now I imagine ARTA will throw their hands up in the air at all of this and say “but it’s not our fault, it’s KiwiRail/Veolia/ARC/City Councils/NZTA’s fault….” Which is probably true, but in a nutshell is the problem.

And having a massive Transport CCO is only going to make things worse, as they’ll be even less accountable while we’ll still have the dis-integration between KiwiRail, Veolia and the new Transport Agency. This isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s throwing the baby out but keeping the damn bathwater.

12 comments to Message to ARTA: please just get the basics right

  • Matt L

    It would be interesting to see the total amount of time Aucklanders have had to endure in delays and compare it to Wellington. I think Auckland would have had far more disruptions and over a longer time without even a single mention of any compensation yet in Wellington they seem to get free days for just one or two instances. Just today I was an hour late home due to a points failure and I think if I was to count up all the delays I have experience this year it would be more than 1 weeks worth of time. I know for my morning train that I have caught almost every day this year we have only been within 5 minutes of our scheduled time to Britomart twice and that was Thursday last week and yesterday, on average we are about 10 mins late. It also doesn’t help that all parties involved lie through their teeth (i.e. Sharon Hunter of ARTA made a statement a few weeks ago that passengers were only delayed about 30 mins when a train broke down on the first Monday that the new fares were introduced. I was on that train and was over an hour late to Britomart)

    At the end of the day I am lead to believe that the ARC, ARTA, Veolia and Kiwirail are all either completely incompetent or just don’t give a s**t about Auckland. I am already starting to see regular commuters stopping using the trains due the the constant problems, lies and lack of accountability. A free day would go a long way to compensating for those frequently affected (and monthly pass users need a cash refund of some sort to keep it fair)

  • obi

    “There was a free day’s travel as compensation”

    Most regular Wellington commuters travel on monthly passes. Of the discretionary travelers, a fairly large proportion are pensioners who travel for free anyway. So this “compensation” probably costs KiwiRail almost nothing, and they’re expecting that the promotional value will be greater than the tiny amount of lost revenue.

  • As part of the compensation package KiwiRail did offer money back to monthly passholders. So it would have cost them a reasonable amount.

    In any case, compensation’s not the issue here. What I want to see is someone stand up and say “right we’ve got a problem here, I’m going to fix it and here’s how.”

    Who’s doing that?

  • Tom Semmens

    This morning my train from Britomart to Waitakere was, yet again, canceled due to a “points failure”. For God’s sake. It is a perfect day today, as have been the last five frakkin’ weeks of golden days and mild temperatures. The delay meant hundreds of students destined for Unitec would have been up to 30 minutes late for lectures. Does the ARC, ARTA, Veolia and Kiwirail care? it doesn’t seem like it. Hundreds of people were, like me, 20-40 minutes late for work. Does the ARC, ARTA, Veolia and Kiwirail even give a damn?

    I am not interested in all the “vapourware” talkfests of mega million CBD tunnels, flash rail trenches and new and improved trains and ticketing. As far as I am concerned that is just loud mouthing by useless PR people and managers who would rather get in a catered lunch while they have another gabfest about a pie in the sky future that never comes than sit at their desks and grapple with the realities of their miserably failing actual, real, now network.

    I just want the God damn system they have now to work, be reliable and be on time for crying out loud. No train in the last month has arrived on time and they are usually between 6 and 10 minutes late. They are quite simply running an incompetent service that seems to run on a best effort basis, where their best effort simply isn’t good enough. if they can’t get it right in perfect weather what hope is there for a reliable commuter service in the winter?

    I worked out it would have been just about quicker to have just walked the 6+km to work.

  • Brian

    I had to aggressively stop my bus this morning, he was going around the 2 already filling the stop, later he just cruised by some other stops that were full.

    Sure the other buses end up in the same general area, but people do choose the bus they get on because it goes a specific route.

    The driver could not sell my daughter a 20 ride reload on her card because the machine was not working properly.

    I have lived in cities/countries with great public transport systems, why can’t it be done here?

  • Jeremy Harris

    I get the feeling the attitude is, “she’ll be right in 2013 when all the updating is done”… Not much good in the meantime though…

  • Nick R

    Tom, Brian, there is a pretty simple answer to both your questions about why they can’t just get the system to work and why it can’t be done here. To put it simply for the last six decades Auckland has persued some of the most private transport focussed transport policy in the world. Decisions were made that meant for half a century that the existing rail network was neglected while almost all funds were put into expanding the road and motorway systems, this happened under all manner of central and local governments.

    The last Labour government made some concessions toward the end of their term and set the ball rolling on rail upgrades and more funding for public transport, but they basically dilly dallyed a lot of it into oblivion. Since the Nats have returned to power they have stripped out the public transport funding in favour of more highways, but mercifully they have agreed to finish off some of Labour’s belated projects. There is simply no political or public will to make any changes to the status quo of the last few decades. People who do support a change in policy such as the Greens and the ARC are labeled as loonies.

    To cut a long story short, most parts of the rail network (including the tracks, signals, control systems, points, trains and stations) is basically fifty or more years old, and they have hardly been maintained in those fifty years. The whole lot basically needs to be replaced as it all well past it’s useful date. The trains we use today were initially sold for scrap when Perth gave up on them in the late 1980s, a couple more were literally museum pieces made functional again. The signalling system is the same one used at the time the Nazis invaded Poland. Sorry, but they just cannot get the current trains and infrastructure to work, be reliable and run on time. This is why the electrification project is so important, not only does it mean new reliable trains but it also includes replacing the antiquated points and signalling across the network. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, as Jeremy says things will be a lot better after 2013 but what can be done in the meantime?

    Yes the ARC, ARTA, Kiwirail et al do care, they are making a hell of a lot of headway with the limited funds they have. But they are not omnipotent nor are they given anything like the funding that Transit NZ gets. The simple fact is getting a system that has spent the last fifty years being run into the ground and neglected working reliably is going to take time and money. They don’t have much money so it is going to take time.

    If you really want to blame someone, blame the last and current government and the people the vote for them. Blame those Aucklanders who couldn’t care less about the rail network and just want to see more motorways to get them out of congestion. Blame the people that voted in Banks the first time so he could champion the eastern motorway instead of voting to keep Fletcher who gave them Britomart and promised a new region wide rail system. Don’t blame the few small organisations that are actually trying to fix the situation, blame the government policy makers.

  • max

    Well said, Nick. You put it perfectly.

  • I certainly agree with you Nick. However, I think that ARTA could do better at communicating when there’s a problem and also ensuring that they are doing everything to minimise the number of problems. I am not sure that’s happening at the moment. The chronic under-investment in rail over decades shouldn’t mean things are way worse this year than last year, it shouldn’t mean that we never get an explanation or an apology when the system fails for the 2364258th time. ARTA needs to step up here, find out what’s causing the unusual spate of problems and bloody well get on with fixing them.

  • Nick R

    Yes certainly there is more that could be done about dealing with problems rapidly, communication once there is a problem and in the area of managing the customers who have been put out and perhaps making alternate arrangements.

    However I was more responding to the “why can’t they just make it work properly” type questions rather than “why can’t they manage disruptions well”.

    In regard to things being worse this year, well as long as we have the same old junk it’ll probably get worse every year… although one would hope the recent trackworks and the like would start to have a positive effect.

  • Matt L

    One of the reasons things are probably getting worse this year is that there is more track work going on. Last year all the big projects, New Lynn, Grafton & Newmarket, were all in the middle of there construction phase and the focus of the work was separate to the tracks they had established. This year they are now finishing these projects and working to get the new double tracks in so there is more chance of something going wrong. I have come to this conclusion as most of the errors are on the newer sections of track while the older stuff seems to be fine.

    Of course that doesn’t excuse the number of trains breaking down.

  • Luke

    I wonder if the forthcoming re-signalling associated with electrification has meant that the old signalling is not being maintained as it normally is?

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