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Why is the Western Line so slow?

Yesterday I caught up with a bunch of fellow transport enthusiasts and we all trundled out to Swanson Station, near the end of the Western Line, to have lunch. It was a good chance for me to actually see all the Western Line (with day-passes we all caught the train out to Waitakere station after lunch and then rode it back to town), as I hadn’t been past Henderson in a great number of years. It also drove home to me just how slow the Western Line actually is. According to the timetable, a trip between Waitakere station and Britomart takes 58 minutes to cover a track that’s around 30km long – so an average speed of around 30 kph. Of course, as we know in recent months the Western Line has very much struggled to even meet this timetable, so the average speed is likely to have been even lower than 30 kph.

This incredibly low speed compares interestingly with other lines in Auckland and Wellington. The southern line, between Britomart and Papakura, is 33km long and takes 52 minutes to run – giving an average speed of around 38 kph. The eastern line is much faster again, and can complete the Westfield to Britomart run in a similar time to what the southern does: even though the track is quite a lot longer. The Pukekohe express train can actually do its 51 km trip in 54 minutes: meaning that it’s actually a faster trip than a Western Line train – even though it’s around 20 km longer! (Yes, I do realise it’s an express train.) In Wellington, the 48 km long Paraparaumu Line takes 55 minutes for an all-stopping service – an average speed of 52 kph. But perhaps most indicting is the realisation that all-stops running times on Auckland’s train system now are around 5 minutes slower than they were back in the early 1990s – despite all the investment we’ve made in the intervening time and despite the closure of a number of stations on the southern and eastern lines.

Now double tracking of the Western Line has been completed, I would have expected a significant improvement in the speed of the Western Line. The last bit of single-track, being the section between Avondale and New Lynn, was a common cause of delay – but obviously that’s no longer a problem so that should allow the trains to go a bit faster – right? Well seemingly not, as everything I have heard indicates that the next rail timetable – due to be released in September – will not “tighten up” the Western Line’s timetable to make the trains go faster. I suppose with a significant proportion of Western Line trains still struggling to even average 30 kph along its route, it would be premature to hope for a faster timetable?

I do recognise that the Western Line is challenging for trains, because it’s quite windy and therefore the trains can’t get up to top speed along much of it. However, there are still a number of things that make me think that at least 5 minutes could be shaved off the running time of this service, which when added to the 7-8 minutes that electrification is likely to save, would actually result in a pretty significant speed increase along the line. So here’s what I think could be done in the meanwhile:

  1. Eliminate the stupid 3 minute dwell at Newmarket. When Newmarket station was opened, we were promised that the end changes would be quick, because trains would have a “pilot” between Newmarket and Britomart – so the drivers wouldn’t have to change ends. Many months later and we’re still waiting. If this was brought down to a typical 30 second dwell, that’s two and a half minutes saved immediately.
  2. Speed up dwell times at stations. Yesterday was a perfect example of how time can be unnecessarily lost, as our train back into Britomart pulled into Kingsland station for some reason the doors didn’t open. The clippie looked blankly at the train manager who had to wander all the way up to the driver to tell him that he hadn’t pressed the right button to allow her to unlock the doors. Hopefully our new electric trains will have driver operated doors so that we don’t need people inside the train having to push their way through the crowds to open the doors (though I guess we might still have silly drivers who forget to push buttons to open the door). Even 15 seconds saved off each dwell would add up to a 4 minute gain across the whole line.
  3. To actually try to make the train go fast. Now this might be some slightly naive on my behalf, but for some reason it always seems as though Western Line trains just slowly chug along the line, rather than having the driver really try to push them hard to get to the next station as quickly as possible. This may be a result of the sharp bends, I don’t exactly know, but compared to every other railway line I’ve ever been on, the Western Line just seems so laid-back and unnecessarily slow. Even small gains could make a big difference here, a few seconds shaved off each trip between stations could add up to 3-4 minutes along the line as a whole.

So even with some pretty minor improvements, I actually think a huge amount of time could be saved off the running time of the Western Line. This would make a huge difference to the service’s popularity I think, and would hopefully mean that using the term “Rapid”, in Rapid Transit Network, wouldn’t feel like such a lie.

18 comments to Why is the Western Line so slow?

  • Sam

    I have also noticed, especially since double tracking finished, that the trains seem to travel slow to keep to their timetables. My train the other day spent 3-4 minutes at kingsland- apparently they use Kingsland as some kind of checkpoint which they wont depart from early.

    Still, the Western line seems comparable in popularity to the other two, and those numbers are still increasing strongly… maybe because of that Veolia thinks people arent bothered by the extra few minutes, and take the opportunity to make some fuel savings. I can see the western line as having so much potential compared with the southern line though- along much of its route it is competing with local roads rather than motorways- it takes forever to get from New Lynn/ Henderson etc by car.

  • Matt L

    I agree, as a regular user I find the trains quite pedestrian at times, I also agree with Sam, between New Lynn and Henderson the train can do it much faster than a car. I have also had times recently where trains are being held up at stations with the TM just standing on the platform looking at his watch because we are running fast.

    There are of course a number of number of things that cause the slow running but I don’t know how much will there is to actually fix them.

    1. The timetable – as you say remove the 3 min wait at Newmarket, even without pilots drivers often can change ends faster than this. Not having a set time would give more incentive to change ends faster. Pilots to speed up changes would be even better. Also the timetable needs to remove conflicts as much as possible.

    2. Drivers and TM’s need to be held more accountable for on time delivery, I have seen TM’s that will keep collecting 2 or 3 more tickets even though the train has stopped and people are waiting to get on and get off.

    3. Faster trains – Most of our trains are now SA sets which are pushed/pulled by freight locos. These don’t handle the bends and hills that well so have to go slower. They also don’t have great acceleration or deceleration, this doesn’t help with issue #4. Hopefully when we get our new electric trains they will be able to handle this much better.

    4. Station Spacing – Between Newmarket and Mt Albert the stations are all pretty close together, the closest is Morningside to Kingsland which is less than 900m apart, the longest of these stations is Kingsland to Mt Eden which is still less than 1.5km apart. Through here the train is acting more like a local bus service than a Rapid Transit line. This is politically a hard one to solve as people wont want to lose their local station. I personally would shut both Baldwin Ave and Morningside and build a new station at St Lukes Rd. This would make it easy to connect to a cross town bus to get to St Lukes Mall. I would also close Mt Eden meaning trains would go Newmarket, Grafton, Kingsland, St Lukes Rd, Mt Albert then carry on west. A good local bus route could then serve those affected by the closing of the stations mentioned. Of course the affects of this on patronage, timetabling, and operating cost would need to be considered.

    5. Track speed – my understanding is that the track speed between Newmarket and Mt Albert is pretty slow which is mainly due to the curves and gradient changes. Even after Mt Albert trains are limited only up to 80kph after that even though there are some fairly straight, flat sections. I wonder how much it would cost to increase the line speed out here. Its a shame this wasn’t done as part of the duplication.

  • Useful insights thanks Matt. I actually agree with you regarding a St Lukes station. It would be much closer to the mall, and also removing the extra station should save a few minutes. We’d need to get a good crosstown bus along St Lukes Road to make it work well though – although I think that’s necessary anyway.

    While patronage on the Western Line is growing, patronage on the Southern/Eastern is growing faster – and the percentage of total train patronage carried by the western line is actually falling. When you’ve just spent most of the $600 million Project DART on upgrading the Western Line and its stations, that’s pretty disappointing.

  • Matt L

    I do think patronage will pick up after September once New Lynn is finished. Many people have probably been holding off/put off using the train due to all of the delays as a result of all the works that have been going on.

    The question that needs to be answered is, How many more people would use the train if you could speed up the overall journey by 10 mins? If you could get from Britomart to New Lynn in 20 mins and Henderson in 30 mins that would surely be massively more popular. It would then be the same if not faster than the same journey in a car at both on and off peak times.

    Unfortunately Morningside has only recently been done up (I believe it was brought forward for a certain tournament next year) so it is it is unlikely we will see any amalgamation of it and Baldwin Ave anytime soon, probably ever.

  • Indeed Matt, I think somehow saving that 10 minutes would make a huge difference to patronage. I guess that’s what we can look forward to if/when the CBD rail tunnel is built one day!

  • Ian

    When the lines are electrified will there be an improvement in speed? Probably not. Even a speedy electric can’t make good speed away from a stop if the train ahead is a ponderous old diesel push/pull. If there are still diesel powered trains after electrification then that is what will govern speed.

  • That’s why I don’t think there will be too many diesels still on the network. Trains from Pukekohe and Huapai are likely to just be shuttle trains to the nearest station with electrics.

    Alternatively, diesels might operate express services.

  • Richard

    Or maybe they set an overly conservative timetable so that they can run more trains on time and have good punctuality stats and the trains go slow to keep to the timetable when they’re on time.

  • I think so Richard, there’s obviously a friction between reliability and speed – in that it’s easier to maintain reliability at a slower speed. However, that’s not necessarily the best outcome for the user, who obviously wants a fast and reliable service.

    At the moment we’re getting neither, sadly.

  • A telecommunications industry engineering phrase comes to mind: “Cheap, fast, and reliable – pick any two”.

    Personally I’d like to see something similar to Wellington-style peak stopping patterns on the Western Line (at least for a couple of services) where we do one of these scenarios:

    Trains run all stops Swanson to Henderson then go limited stops from there – Henderson, New Lynn, Mt Albert, Kingsland, Grafton, (maybe) Newmarket, Britomart, alternated with trains that run all stops from Henderson.

    Or, trains run all stops to New Lynn then express or limited stop, alternated with all-stoppers starting from New Lynn (this would require less trains).

    This would speed up the peak-time journey for passengers further out, and for more than one train a day.

    The reverse in the evenings.

    This is what I’d personally like to see on the next West line timetable. Two express services each way as above with all-stoppers slotted in between, starting at some midpoint along the line (say Henderson with its new stabling facilities).

  • Oh and also, fare collection should not be part of the Train Manager’s (Guard’s) role. This should go to the Passenger Operators (ticket collectors).

  • ingolfson

    “Useful insights thanks Matt. I actually agree with you regarding a St Lukes station. It would be much closer to the mall”

    Pish tosh, admin! That would save approximately 100m (and possibly even be equal to the Morningside Station distance once the mall expands to Exter Road). You recently called the argument that extending Westfield St Lukes north by 100-200m was a sad joke for public transport, and now you are proposing to move a train station for even less? Let’s stick to the good reasons why closing / moving stations may make sense…

    Also, electrics have a much better acceleration (I assume that acceleration has been specified in the tender docs?) so the many stations should not be as much an issue.

    In the final equation, also, I believe reliability is more important than speed, if the speeds are not TOO bad.

    • Haha I knew that’d wind you up ingolfson!

      Actually my solution for St Lukes shopping centre would have been for a land swap between Westfield and Auckland City so that the mall extended into the park next to Cornwallis Street while Westfield gave back the council the same amount of land near Exeter Street. That way St Lukes’ “front door” could have been from Sandringham Road a lot more.

  • Matt L

    Ingolfson – For the record, I think we should combine Baldwin Ave and Morningside into a new station at St Lukes Rd not for the mall but to integrate better into an improved cross town bus route along St Lukes Rd and also to space out stations better. Yes acceleration and braking will be better with electrics but it still takes time to slow down, dwell while passengers get on/off and then accelerate back up to speed. When stations are only 1km apart that will make a difference.

    Also when looking at patronage stats per station (the most recent data I can find is from 2009) Baldwin Ave, Morningside and Mt Eden were all in the bottom 5 stations for the entire western line, only Swanson and Waitakere are less and they are at the end of the line.

    I would say Mt Eden Station is competing for patronage with Mt Eden Rd and New North Rd buses while Baldwin Ave and Morningside are competing with New North Rd buses. I think that closing these three but adding the one new one at St Lukes Rd could shave 2-3 minutes off a journey to New Lynn. That combined with other improvements like faster stops, faster electric trains it could make a real difference to the speed out west.

    Lastly, yes reliabilty is important, but the speeds out west are shockingly bad between Newmarket and Mt Albert

  • Luke

    With Mt Eden station I would say that is more a destination station than a origin. It will be replaced by a new Newton station as part of the CBD tunnel so probably not worth closing that.
    St Lukes station does sound like a good idea.
    I would also expect that peak train patronage will exceed capacity of the electric trains until the CBD tunnel is built. Therefore trains will be jam-packed getting into Mt Albert for an example. Therefore I would expect many from here to be pushed towards taking a bus to the CBD at the peak.

  • Geoff

    Since the double track opened there have continued to be a number of CSB (Compulsary Stop Board) sites protecting the various works going on along the line, including Kingsland, Mt Eden and Mt Albert, and care is used when passing through the sites, which from end to end, cover much of the route between Boston Rd and Avondale.

    Maximum speeds out west are much slower than down south. South and east are 100, while west is a mix of 40, 70 and 80, with various lower speeds within those areas, for curves etc. The curve beside the Horse & Trap for example, is only 35km/h.

    There is however room for improvement. Take away the current speed restrictions, and you have about 5 or 6 minutes of redundant time. With EMU’s, I expect the redundant time would be more like 10 minutes. So really, the September schedules should bring the 58 minutes down to 52-53 minutes, further reduced to 48 minutes post-electrification.

    If the September schedules don’t have times reduced, something is wrong with the timetable planning (which we already know anyway, from the various unrealistic times ARTA have put into effect in the past, much to thew frustration of Train Control and the operators). Timetables should really be the responsibility of KiwiRail Network.

  • Hopefully they’ll sort out connections too, especially late night.

    Right now there’s no viable east-west connection in the evenings.

    Hopefully they’ll have North, East, West and Onehunga arrivals all timed to come in to Britomart say 10 minutes before they all go out again, facilitating easy swapping between all four.

    (South doesn’t matter as the other four lines (with Onehunga) serve all stations anyway, you can keep South out of the above arrangement so you can keep even east/south service spacing without any service holes)

    This would connect people well between Sylvia Park, Onehunga, New Lynn, Albany (if they extend the NEX there one day) and any other place on the RTN or RTN-connected services they happen to be coming from or going to.

    (yes, I’m counting the NEX / Northern Busway as a “line” here, I’m talking about RTN connections and therefore the NEX does count)

  • kyrie

    The Western line slow train speed is annoying but quite understandable. Yes there are some tight curves and construction areas but there are two main reasons for the slowness. One is the poor state of track alignment. The cars are jumping all over the place. The newly laid track is appallingly bumpy.
    The other is the power limitations of the train sets, both motive and braking power. Its not so bad if you have a DFT loco and a driver who knows what he is doing. By comparison the DMUs used on the Onehunga line fairly zip along and stop quickly, almost as good as a bus stopping.
    As for the track alignment, I am reminded of a journey by Silver Fern railcar from Hamilton to Wellngton back in the 1970s. 20 minutes late at National Park where there was a crew change. 30 minutes early into Wellington. How come the gain of 50 minutes? Easy. Sheer speed! I was able to access the rear driving cab where I observed the speedo as we headed off to Waiouru and then down to Palmerston North, clocking just over 80 miles per hour (136 Km/hour) on the straights. If the track alignment had been as bad as the Western line we would have crashed big time. As it was I was quite happy to drink frm an open cup in my hand and not spill any contents.

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