The new train timetables that started up on September 19th have been running for almost exactly a month now. A major change in those timetables as an increase in frequency for Southern Line and (particularly) Eastern Line commuters, but a corresponding loss of almost all the express trains on the rail network. Gone went the Western Line express (which was strange considering peak time frequencies didn’t increase there and gone went most of the Southern Line peak trains.
Effectively, ARTA made a decision to prioritise frequency over speed. The problem with express trains is that they tend to catch all-stopping trains in front of them, unless you leave a large gap in the timetable or (in an ideal world) if you have dedicated tracks for express services. From next year, when we get up to having 10 minute frequencies at peak times on our three main lines, it seems somewhat unlikely that we will have any express services – because slotting them in would just be too difficult – unless we switched to something like Wellington’s timetable system, where the lines have a number of different stopping patterns, which does reduce the frequency of trains at particular stations.
There is a natural tension between high speed and high frequency, because of the issue of trains catching each other. But I do wonder whether the right approach is to focus completely on frequency at the cost of speed. Do we really need all our trains stopping at all our stations all the time? On the Western Line in particular, the inner section is painfully slow due to poor track geometry – while it also seems that the majority of patronage is from stations west of New Lynn. Would it make more sense to have every second train skip some of the lower patronage inner stations on the Western Line – like Avondale, Baldwin Ave, Morningside and Mt Eden? How much time would you gain from changing with the stopping pattern, and would it be worth the hassle (and the reduction of service from a train every 10 minutes to a train every 20 minutes at those stations)?
Personally, I think it’s important that we keep at the top of our mind the necessity that our Rapid Transit Network is, well, rapid. The average speed of trains on the Western Line is a painfully slow 30 kilometres an hour – pretty disgraceful in many respects as around half a billion dollars has been spent on upgrading this line over the past five or so years. If we had bus lanes along the Waterview section of Great North Road I am pretty sure it would be faster to catch the bus between New Lynn and the CBD at peak times than the train – something that should simply not be possible.
Of course the ultimate solution is to triple track our main lines (or quad track them). Then we have the ability to run both express and local services on the same line without having to worry about getting frequencies too high – because the faster trains could just pass the slower ones on different tracks. New York City’s subway system benefits from the express/local division enormously. But in Auckland that’s only likely on a short section of the southern line (Westfield to Wiri) any time in the near future. So really, I think we do need to have a good long think about what’s more important: speed or frequency? We also need to have a good think about what could be done to speed up our current trains (such as being more efficient when it comes to dwell times).
I don’t really know the answer here – what is more important to train catchers. Speed or frequency?