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Guest Post: The West is being won, but is the South being lost?

This is a Guest Post by regular CBT forum contributor Jodi Johnston. If any readers wish to contribute a guest post please email the admin – details under “contact us”.

Background

For people who have seen my postings on the CBT Forum, this will all be familiar material to you all, and I do apologise that you have to see this again. For people who are not regular viewers of the CBT Forum, I hope you enjoy the following piece.

Over the past twenty years, starting with the introduction of the ex-Perth DMUs in 1993, there has been a sea change in the suburban rail system in Auckland. We have seen improvements throughout the network, and especially so on the formerly neglected Western Line, where the line has been duplicated over the last few years and the passengers have benefited from service improvements. Unfortunately, this has come to some degree at the cost of the Southern and Eastern Line which has not benefitted to the same degree in spite of having over twice the number of passengers as the Western Line. This imbalance came to a head in September 2010 when the Western Line got the benefit of four six-car SA train sets, while the Southern and Eastern Line got very little in the way of capacity improvements, with only the section between Auckland and Penrose benefitting to any degree. As the next section will show, this imbalance has been building for some time.

The Present Situation

Before launching into the main part of the piece, it would pay to look at some of the recent history around timetabling for the Southern and Eastern Line. Since September 2005, the peak timetable has essentially stayed the same for passengers south of Otahuhu. The specific times have changed slightly, a game of musical chairs has been played with rolling stock, and the stopping patterns have been tweaked, but it is relatively easy to trace the ancestry of today’s services with their 2005 predecesors. Any improvements to the service for Southern and Eastern Line passengers has largely been confined to those passengers north of Otahuhu were a large number of short runner services have been instituted, in part to deal with loadings, and in part due to media outcries.

The last additional service that was instituted south of Otahuhu was in April 2007 when a short runner service running via Glen Innes became a Limited Stop service with an origin in Pukekohe. This service was specifically started to alleviate heavy loadings on the Silver Fern, and became reasonably popular fairly quickly. The last improvement in capacity for those passengers south of Otahuhu was in July 2009 when the Silver Fern was replaced with a four-car SA train. Between 2005 and 2009, there had been limited capacity improvements for those passengers south of Otahuhu, mostly related to when the three-car SA trains were extended to become four-car SA trains in 2008.

What makes the situation all the more horrifying is the fact that four of the stations south of Otahuhu are among the busiest stations in Auckland. Papakura Station with 3333 passengers a day as of 2009 was the 3rd busiest station in Auckland; Manurewa was 4th with 3083 passengers a day; Papatoetoe was 6th with 2432 passengers a day and Middlemore was 8th with 2246 passengers a day.

Obviously raw statistics does not say much without personal observation. Before looking at that, I would note that most overseas rail and metro systems are comfortable with passengers standing for up to twenty to thirty minutes. In the case of the Southern and Eastern Line, that puts the threshold anywhere between Sylvia Park, Penrose and Middlemore for Auckland bound passengers, and between Middlemore and Puhinui for Newmarket bound passengers (for those who are interested, that puts the threshold for the Western Line anywhere between Baldwin Avenue and New Lynn for Auckland bound passengers, and between Avondale and Glen Eden for Newmarket bound passengers).

Given those parameters, looking at the services as they pass Westfield Station is a good measure of loadings on services on the Southern and Eastern Line. I took the opportunity to observe these services on a Wednesday morning peak in October prior to the end of the Second Semester, so this would be an approximate measure of loadings on a typical morning peak when workers, University students and school students are likely to use the train. Unfortunately, this day did coincide with a teacher’s strike day, so there would have been fewer school students than normal on the train services that day.

It was pretty obvious from the beginning that there currently is a strain on some of the services heading from Papakura and Pukekohe. The major problems appeared to be around the 7:03am Limited ex Pukekohe and the 7:34am ex Pukekohe, with what appeared to be a horrific loading on the former service. Some of the other services looked like they could only accommodate a few more passengers before there would be problems down the line – this is especially so of the services that run via Glen Innes which need to absorb the demand from stations further down the line.

Pukekohe

The above observations indicated that the services with the highest loading were two services that both originated at Pukekohe. It seems strange when it is considered initially, but when you sit down and consider it, Pukekohe has to be one of the great curve balls to patronage on the Southern and Eastern Line. Since it gained a regular service to Auckland a decade ago, patronage has grown by leaps and bounds and as of 2009 was the 30th busiest station on the network with 636 passengers a day. What makes that more remarkable is that at the time the 2009 patronage count was conducted, there were only 12 services from Pukekohe per day, and 13 services to Pukekohe per day.

Even if we assume that half those passengers are going to Auckland with the other half coming from Auckland and with only two-thirds of the passengers travelling during peak, which still leaves you with an additional 200 passengers. When one considers that there are only six services available for the commuter, of which only three are viable, it is pretty clear that you are going to get about a carriage worth of additional passengers, and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that this is happening – especially with the 7:03am Limited.

The impact further along the line would also be significant. Where you would have 250 passengers on a train at Westfield on a service that originated from Papakura, that train now has over 300 passengers and given how few passengers board at Westfield and Otahuhu, it is clear that the train would have had standees from Middlemore and possibly Papatoetoe – pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable by overseas standards.

So What?

Now you are probably wondering, it is all well and good that the Southern and Eastern Line is having all these problems, but there has just been $500 million spent on the duplication of the Western Line – surely that justifies having extra capacity on peak hour services to maximise the benefit of the investment. Personally, I ask so what?

We need to remember why that $500 million was spent on the Western Line in the first place – it was spent because there was a capacity problem that could only be fixed in a limited number of ways. As the infrastructure existed prior to 2004, there was only sufficient capacity to run train services once every half an hour past Avondale, and thus there was a capacity constraint. The only available methods to fix this problem was either the full duplication of the line, the construction of additional passing loops with all their associated timetabling dilemmas, or the elimination of contra-peak services and running additional peak direction services one after the other similar to how services had been operated prior to 1993.

Therefore, the $500 million was spent in order to deal with a capacity problem and not in order to justify the allocation of a lot of extra capacity while other lines have had little in the way of increased capacity.

Other associated problems

This is not the first time that a serious misjudgement of patronage demand has occurred. With the introduction of the July 2008 timetable, the 4:15pm to Papakura via Newmarket which had been allocated a 236 seat SX train set was replaced with the 4:10pm to Pukekohe via Newmarket which was allocated a 130 seat ADL train set. The 4:15pm service had been highly popular with standees when the service left Auckland, and it should not have been all that surprising that the 4:10 service would be equally popular. It wasn’t until a passenger got injured and there was a big article on Close Up that the capacity was restored. Political interference aside, we need to consider one more reason why there would have been a misjudgement in patronage demand.

That reason of course is how our patronage figures are currently derived. Our patronage figures are solely derived from counts that are made by the onboard staff at various points on the trip. For the Southern and Eastern Line, the counts occur in the vicinity of Homai, Glen Innes and Ellerslie Stations. This not only means that patronage from some stations is missed in the monthly statistics, but it also means that patronage on each service is determined by these counts. As I have stated through this piece, the problem are those passengers who originated from Papatoetoe and Middlemore and have to stand for half an hour or more, and those passengers are not at all able to be considered when rolling stock allocations occur because, well, no-one knows how many people board.

Another concern is the honesty of the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority. When they cut capacity on the Southern and Eastern Line back in July 2008, there was absolutely no official mention of it – anywhere. It was only when passengers looked at the timetable and actually saw the rolling stock allocation that they realised that there had been a cut. Similarly, the promotions for the recent September 2010 timetable heavily mentioned an increase in seats across the network, and this could be easily read as indicating more peak hour capacity. For those passengers who have to endure a trip on the Southern Line south of Penrose or the Eastern Line, there was absolutely no increase in peak hour capacity in the morning peak. This potentially made that advertising misleading.

What needs to be done?

Throughout this piece, I have commented on the situation for the average Southern and Eastern Line passenger. I noted that since 2005, there has been virtually no change in capacity for passengers south of Otahuhu. I have noted that there are significant numbers of standees on services in the morning peak by the time they arrive at Westfield Station – and this is pushing the boundaries of what would be deemed acceptable by overseas systems. It is no good outlining problems without outlining the solutions as well.

With the February timetable change, there needs to be four six-car sets allocated to the Southern and Eastern Line. This would have the impact of increasing Southern and Eastern Line capacity by eight carriages and would help alleviate capacity problems in the period prior to electrification. This would not at all disadvantage Western Line passengers, as they would still have a net gain of four carriages on top of all the additional capacity that they obtained with the September 2010 timetable.

Based on my limited observations, I would suggest that the following morning peak services would need the additional capacity

6:54am ex Pukekohe via Glen Innes
7:03am ex Pukekohe Limited via Newmarket
7:25am ex Papakura Limited via Glen Innes
7:34am ex Pukekohe via Newmarket

In the afternoon peak, where the situation is much more comfortable, I do not have any specific suggestions. Obviously, there would either need to be a limited stop pattern to skip those stations that do not have suitable length platforms, although such a pattern should not exist for long as there is an apparent deadline of having all platform extension works completed by the middle of next year.

Other things need to be done as well to ensure that such situations are handled correctly in the future. Passenger counts need to be conducted in the vicinity of Westfield Station; this would give an idea of the number of passengers at what is a pretty critical boundary point. Advertising from Auckland Transport needs to be more honest, and while they might not want to promote capacity cuts, at the very least do not mention an increase in seats throughout the network when there isn’t an extra morning peak seat for the thousands of commuters who travel on the Southern Line south of Penrose and the Eastern Line. Another possibility might be to make service patronage data a little more publicly available. I note for instance that City Rail in Sydney released their morning and afternoon peak patronage data (can be found here, and this means that a fair comparison can be made about patronage on services and on lines.

24 comments to Guest Post: The West is being won, but is the South being lost?

  • Matt

    It’s obvious that the Southern and Eastern lines are the neglected cousins when one considers that the full EMUs aren’t going to be used on the Southern Line. No, that privilege goes to the Western, and instead we get cars pulled by electric locos.
    At present we also appear to get the nastiest, nosiest trains, with one that I travelled on for the 17:26 Onehunga service last Tuesday being so loud that if I were working on it I’d be demanding that Veolia supply me with ear plugs.

  • One of the things about Pukekohe is that we appear to be about to lose our ‘bus service. This is really going to be a disaster for some of us. The train is, indeed, very popular, but is not possible for some of us. The old ARTA did a survey some time back proposing this. We have heard nothing since then but my regular ‘bus driver tells me that the scuttlebutt is that indeed the Pukekohe-to-Papakura service will cease at the end of this year. Too bad for those of us who:

    - work in between Pukekohe and Papakura
    - work in Drury
    - for whom (like me) the train will add 45 minutes to their working day AND subtract an additional 45 minutes from the time they actually spend at work AND add over $1000/year to their commute cost

    They did this survey but they never responded to our queries and there has, so far, been no official notice. I can only hope my ‘bus driver is wrong – but I doubt he is. He has been right so far about all the other stuff.

    This is our ‘benefit’ from being forced into the new SuperCity.

    jj

    • Peter

      How many people use your service John? If there aren’t very many and the service duplicates the railway line then I would say it’s stupid ARTA/Auckland Transport haven’t cut it earlier. They can’t be in the business of providing a taxi service.

      • Anon

        The problem is that services to Pukekohe finish to early in the evening for Public transport to be considered as a option for many ( if not most I have talked to ) commuters. If you often ended waiting 45 minutes for the next bus then you too might find using that service a bit daunting. Also the last workday Bus from Papakura leaves at 6.47pm that last train leaves Britomart at 7.12pm. Given modern day work hours and after hour socializing thats a joke.

        It is no wonder that the Franklin area Bus services are so underutilised.

        • Peter

          Pukekohe is going to lose all its direct services to the CBD post electrification anyway – with shuttles to Papakura (or Puhinui I can’t remember). That’s going to suck for them – time to put some pressure on to extent electrification all the way down to Pukekohe?

          • Anon

            A feeder service using (light) diesel electric rail cars could traverse from Tuakau – Pukekohe – Paerata – Dury – Pakakura – Dury – Pareata – Glenbrook – Mauku – Waikuku and back for much less outlay than laying new track, and run at much less expense than providing a bus service.

    • How many people use your service John? If there aren’t very many and the service duplicates the railway line then I would say it’s stupid ARTA/Auckland Transport haven’t cut it earlier

      Not many use it – and it does not duplicate the railway line. Some people will lose their jobs. There are several I know who work in the market gardens halfway between Pukekohe and Papakura. A number of others who work in factories in Drury. No vehicle in some cases. In my case, I can take the rail – it’s just too bad for me that it adds 45 minutes to my already 12-hour day; subtracts 45 minutes (not the same 45 minutes!) from the work I give my boss, who will either have to accept it or sack me); and increases my travel costs by 60%.

      jj

  • Sam

    I have caught the 7:25am LS2 service from Papakura a few times this month. Its a 5 car SX set- this would have been the longest train on the network until September… and the Southern/eastern line got it btw). It is a high quality ride (smooth, quiet and fast), although there is a distinct impression that they skimped on the interior design.

    It is only about 2/3 full by Glen Innes, then after Meadowbank (a VERY busy station at that time… almost entirely businessmen) and Orakei there are usually one or two standing. All in all its a pretty big train, but seems a bit underutilised actually- a surprise after hearing that the one 5 mins before is completely packed (despite going through Newmarket).

    The East and South may have smaller trains now, but they are more frequent than the western line I believe, and the line is much straighter. Overall, I’m not sure about the “its our turn, they just got heaps of money” argument- its about getting everything up to a comparative and acceptable quality. Steven Joyce, I believe, does use the former argument to justify throwing the next wad of Auckland infrastructure cash at motorways “because the rail network has received $1.6b in the last 5 years”…thats rubbish, it needs to catch up to make Auckland as efficient as possible

  • Peter

    Very interesting post. My guess is that the Western Line has had a lot of the focus because so much money was spent improving it – that it would have been dumb to keep things the way they were (half hour peak frequencies and hourly off-peak not that long ago I seem to remember).

    Won’t all short-running services be extended to Manukau in July next year?

  • CM

    The Southern/Eastern lines were already double tracked the whole way through, so bringing the Western up to this standard is hardly favouritist.

    It is also getting the Manukau extension, which will eventually give 12tph in some stretches, surely frequency improvements are as important as capacity?

    And an airport line may go that way, so might Hamilton trains which would stop at least at Papkura and Pukekohe – and so provide capacity there too. It’s not all bad…

  • Jodi Johnston

    Sam, the one thing I would need to point out is that with the Universities finished for the year, and the senior school students also finished for the year, there would be a corresponding decrease in morning peak patronage on all lines.

    When I made my observations, the SX set was short of a full seated load, however, my comment about it gaining from lengthening was also based on prior experience of the service following (the 7:59am ex Otahuhu), which loaded up very quickly and usually left Orakei with a crush load. Certainly, I have seen a tendency for Eastern Line commuters to swarm over the short runner services, and I suspect that is in part due to the capacity woes that have existed with the longer haul services.

    Peter, I am in agreement with you about frequency improvements on the Western Line. I never had an issue with the improvement from thirty minute peak to fifteen minute peak frequency, and neither will I have issue with the improvement from fifteen minute peak frequency to ten minute peak frequency. My concern is that the Southern/Eastern Line is being neglected with consequences for the overall system.

    Matt, I know what you mean about the noisest, nastiest trains, having spent most of my daily commutes in ADK class DMUs prior to the timetable change. Obviously it isn’t ideal, but there are very valid reasons why we get them – the ADK class DMUs don’t have the guts to handle the Western Line, and even in Tranz Metro days, there was a tendency to keep them away from the Western Line. About locomotive hauled electric services, I do think that they would be best suited for the Eastern Line as it would be a good match of capacity with demand (384 seats for a six-car SA set vs ~480 seats for an EMU with corresponding standing capacity).

    • Peter

      Jodi, I suppose the problem is that there’s not much money to go around. The SA Trains have pretty much dribbled in over the past five (ish?) years so a choice had to be made about where they went. It was either 15 minute frequencies on the Western Line or going down from 7-8 minute frequencies on the southern to something even better.

      Surely it made sense the Western was the focus?

      • Jodi Johnston

        The overall structure of the timetable is something that I don’t have much of an issue with, my primary concern is with respect of specific rolling stock allocation – as mentioned in the above post, the Western Line got four six-car SA sets with the last timetable change, while there was no improvement in morning peak capacity for the Southern Line south of Penrose, nor the Eastern Line.

        If it had been me, I would have allocated two six-car SA sets to the Western and two six-car SA sets to the Southern/Eastern – that would have meant that the Western would have benefitted as well as the Southern/Eastern. Obviously, this would have meant that the Western Line would have had two four-car SA sets that they don’t have at the present.

        • Peter

          I thought the reason the Western Line got longer trains first was because their platforms had been lengthened (bar Baldwin Ave) whereas the Eastern Line and Southern Line still had a number of short platforms.

          • Jodi Johnston

            Whilst that could be used as an argument, it is a marginal argument at best. At the time of the September timetable, the following Southern/Eastern Line stations had 120 metre long platforms or better:

            Papakura
            Manurewa
            Homai
            Middlemore
            Westfield
            Ellerslie
            Newmarket
            Sylvia Park
            Panmure

            Then when you add in the stations with platforms of 100 metres or better:

            Papatoetoe
            Glen Innes
            Meadowbank
            Orakei

            You can see that running six-car sets on a Limited Stop timetable servicing the busiest stations would have been viable with stops added as the stations got lengthened. Obviously, this would have required the very front and very rear door of the trains to be locked in the manner of the SX set. Since September, we have seen Orakei, Meadowbank, Glen Innes, Te Mahia and Takanini lengthened to a 140 metre standard, so that doesn’t leave many stations left to upgrade

  • Anon

    The solution is increase the size of the catchment area for Franklin district public transport users.

    Make use of the existing Waiuku and Mission Bush Branches ( now restored back into Waiuku township ) that could provide significant room for urban sprawl as well as train based weekend holiday destination.

    A feeder service using (light) rail cars could traverse from Tuakau – Pukekohe – Paerata – Dury – Pakakura – Dury – Pareata – Glenbrook – Mauku – Waikuku and back for much less outlay than laying new track, and run at much less expense than providing a bus service.

    Have buses operate loop services stopping at train stations and actually waiting for the next incoming train to arrive. Use smaller minibuses for the off peak and/or currently under used services.

    • William M

      If you’re suggesting using the current rail infrastructure, unfortunately you will find that Kiwirail and Auckland Transport will probably baulk at the cost of installing track protection measures along the Glenbrook Vintage Line operating to Waiuku (not the Industrial Line that runs to the Steel Mill, mind), which is owned by the Railway Enthusiasts Society. First of all, the points switching in GVL to the Industrial Line are hand operated; these would have to be motorised. Signalling would also have to be installed, and there’s the likely cost of upgrading road level crossings in the area. The best you could possibly do is a Tuakau – Papakura shuttle stopping at Pukekohe and Paerata, but even Paerata would be a stretch.

  • the train journay is liked when any one goes with a great hutch of friends.. not for me like a bored man!

  • One of the things I suggested to ARTA was that they keep the commute-time buses to Pukekohe. They intend, anyway, to keep the in-Pukekohe loop. Despite repeated e-mails and letters I was never able even to get a response.

  • Akarana

    Thanks for the post Jodi, a really cohesive argument. What will be interesting to see post Manukau station is how the timetable operates services south of Manukau in regards to frequency. Currently off peak between Papakura and Wesfield the service frequency is roughly every 15 minutes. Would we see a frequency reduction to 30mins off peak and in similar notion to peak services? Remembering that Southern Line services are still quite full past Puhinui currently however I have heard that the short runners to Otahuhu will be extended to Manukau which should help but I cannot confirm that.

    • Peter

      I doubt we’ll see frequencies reduced anywhere. The idea is 6 tph south of Manukau, 12 tph between Manukau and Westfield then 6 tph on the Eastern and 8 tph (6 from the south, 2 from Onehunga) on the southern line between Penrose and Newmarket.

      That’s a pretty decent level of service at peak times. I imagine off peaks we’ll see 15 minute frequencies in the not too distant future.

  • William M

    I don’t know if frequency is always what we’re looking for. Needs to be a balance of frequency and capacity. From what I know of my morning/evening journeys to work from Papakura, it is the latter that we need the most. Pukekohe certainly needs frequency too, though; Pukekohe-bound passengers can be left stranded at Papakura for up to 2-3 hours if a single train to Pukekohe is cancelled. That isn’t a model for delivering service.

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