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”.
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.
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.
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.