In a typically well thought out comment on my recent post that ARTA should focus on getting the train system sorted before getting stuck into all these bizarre promotions they have going on, Nick R pointed out that I was perhaps being a little bit harsh on ARTA and that the problems being experienced by our rail system at the moment are – just like they’ve been for years – the result of decades of neglect. Furthermore, political moves have meant that ARTA appears to be receiving less money from NZTA than previously anticipated, which seems to have led to an $11 million cutback to their rail budget.
I certainly agree with Nick that the problems experienced on the rail network generally aren’t ARTA’s fault, and perhaps I was being a tad harsh on them. But certainly it seems as though things could be done quite a lot better in a number of areas – both to minimise the inconvenience of delays, to make people feel as though the various agencies involved are really trying their best to fix things up, and to also offer some hope that things will get better some time before 2013 when electrification is completed. Quite simply, I think people want to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
A good example of how to do this was shown last year when the Central Connector bus lanes were being built along Symonds Street. The construction did cause chaos and mayhem, but there was pretty good signage around explaining what was going on, people knew well in advance when the connector would be open and what benefits it would bring. In particular I remember a sign that read “Road Works Today so our Roads Work Tomorrow” which I thought was quite clever.
And there is a lot for rail passengers to look forwards to in the next few months. Next month Grafton station will open, which means that the stretch of single-track between Newmarket and Boston Road will be history. This should improve reliability of the Western Line quite significantly. Beyond that, in July the Onehunga Line will supposedly open (I’ll believe it when I see the station under construction) opening up a whole new corner of Auckland to the rail system. Later in the year, around September/October the New Lynn station will be completed – meaning the complete elimination of single-track on the Western Line. Oh, and some time in there the new Avondale station will open in a far more convenient location to the town centre.
It also seems as though in July we’ll see a new and improved rail timetable, perhaps even with 10 minute frequencies on the Southern and Eastern lines at peak hour (that’s the rumour I’ve heard anyway). Hopefully we’ll also see trains running later at nights, and more weekend services on the Western Line in particular (this might only come after double-tracking is completed in October). Beyond that, the Manukau Branch Line will open some time next year.
The point being that there is a lot to look forward to, and also that many of these improvements (such as the elimination of stretches of single-track on the Western Line) will lead to greater reliability on the rail system. Yet outside of a pretty small circle of transport nerds like myself, I don’t know how many people know how close we are to completing many projects that have been going on for years now. They’re also unlikely to know about timetable improvements or anything like that. They can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I also think that ARTA needs to get together with KiwiRail and Veolia to work out exactly what’s causing the problems that seem to have been plaguing the rail system throughout this year. Obviously some of the problems won’t have an easy solution, but surely some of them might and effort should be going into eliminating those small issues. Even if we can reduce the number of problems by 20%, that’s well worth the effort. And ARTA should tell us about all of this, they should let the customer know that they’re working hard to fix the issues: that KiwiRail has analysed exactly where points failures occur most frequently and is doing something about it; that Veolia and ARTA are working to identify their most unreliable trains and using them as infrequently as possible or undertaking additional maintenance to reduce the number of mechanical faults; or ensuring that when staff on a train apologise for a delay they actually do so in a way that sounds like they mean it.
It’s annoying enough to experience problems on the rail network, but feeling as though none of the agencies responsible give a damn is like adding insult to injury. For this approach to work it has to be genuine though, ARTA really does have to get together with KiwiRail and identify why there are over 200 points failures on the Auckland rail network each year and establish a process of doing something to reduce this number, they really do have to find ways to communicate better to passengers when things are going wrong, how long the delay will be, what other options people have and so forth. Ultimately, I do believe that ARTA cares about its passengers – but they need to show that better.
What do others think? What could ARTA do better here, aside from the obvious of ensuring that the problems didn’t happen in the first place?