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RWC transport fail – and what to do about it

I have had a couple of days to think about what happened on Friday night, particularly in terms of the mess that happened with Auckland’s public transport network. It seems that there were an enormous number of contributing factors to what happened, some which should have been foreseen, others were perhaps the result of bad luck. As generally happens with things like this, if one thing starts to go wrong then it snowballs and makes other problems worse.

Fundamentally though, it seems there were two big contributing factors:

  1. Organisers expected around 50,000 people to head downtown to enjoy the festivities, but around 200,000 people actually showed up.
  2. The main departure point for people to Eden Park just happened to be right next to the prime party area.

I’m reasonably confident that the transport system could have coped with either getting 60,000 people to and from Kingsland or getting 200,000 people to and from the city centre. In the Bledisloe Cup game a couple of months back a combination of buses and trains carried over half the audience without too many problems (just a few delays after the game, but that was somewhat to be expected). Similarly, the transport system to and from downtown copes with the daily rush hour and also copes with big events in the city like Santa Parades, Christmas in the Park and so forth.

Coping with either of the two events would have stretched the system, coping with both at the same time in the same place fundamentally was just too much. The opening night events were probably over-hyped quite a lot: the music on Queens Wharf was pretty useless to around 90% of people in town because they couldn’t get on the wharf. The waka arrival in the Viaduct Harbour was pretty cool, but once again because the crowds were so big it was impossible to see the mass haka or anything else. The fireworks were also probably best seen from high points or coastal points around the Waitemata Harbour – but people weren’t told that, they were told that the best experience was to be had by getting downtown, by public transport, early. So we did, in HUGE numbers.

While there are a lot more games at Eden Park before we get into the really huge matches like the semi-finals and final, until those games in over a month’s time it seems unlikely that we will have the huge numbers of people downtown partying in the way that we saw on Friday. I suspect that a number of people will probably be put off going back into the city centre by Friday’s events no matter what, so a repeat of having both a big game and 200,000 people downtown seems pretty unlikely.

That all said, I think the transport system could have still done a much better job at handling the number of people compared to what transpired. The key in such situations is for officials to have some flexibility in their plans, to have excellent communications channels so that everyone on the front line knows exactly what’s going on, and also to ensure that there’s a Plan B, a Plan C and so forth. When it became obvious in the afternoon that the trains were extremely busy bringing people into town, staff should have been dispatched to all train stations around the network letting people know what was happening and encouraging them to find alternative transport options – or perhaps to go somewhere else.

Because the rail network has a limited amount of flexibility to change plans (its strength is its capacity, its weakness is its inflexibility) there should have been the ability to ramp up buses to meet any shortfalls. It was my understanding that buses leaving from around the Civic had a fairly decent run to the stadium – so train users should have been encouraged to use this alternative when it became clear the rail system wasn’t coping. Once again you would have thought that this would have been a pretty obvious “Plan B”. I think perhaps a reluctance of the officials to admit that anything was going wrong perhaps compounded the issue because backups plans (like using the Strand station to ease pressure on Britomart) weren’t activated until it was far too late.

A lot of focus has been around the fact that emergency stopping buttons were pushed on the trains, and it seems the Veolia are definitely trying to use this as their main excuse for what went so horribly wrong. However, I don’t think that’s really acceptable – for two main reasons:

  1. There were similar problems with people pushing the emergency stop button on trains bound for the U2 concert earlier this year – so there certainly should have been an awareness of this problem. Apparently a big problem was that the trains were so packed that staff couldn’t respond quickly to situations when the buttons were pushed, or (presumably) prevent them from being pushed.
  2. I can actually understand why, if you had been stuck on a train going nowhere for an hour, were seeing the opening ceremony time and game time tick closer, and were in an overcrowded carriage struggling to breathe, you would push the button. It’s not so much an emergency stop as an “I want out”.  In the circumstances, although it certainly made things worse, I can actually understand why people pushed the button.

So what about solutions? I suppose first things first a number of the issues faced on Friday night are likely to resolve themselves somewhat automatically. We won’t have huge events in the city for at least a few more weeks, we won’t have big matches coinciding with weekdays until the bronze medal match (and who wants to go to that match anyway?) And perhaps most of all, we will probably see a heck of a lot more people driving their cars to the next games – they quite understandably just don’t trust the public transport system to get them there. Which is a mighty big shame as clearly Auckland’s population were so willing to give PT a go on Friday – and it also means we’re likely to see pretty nasty traffic around that corner of Auckland.

In terms of what Auckland Transport, Veolia and others can do better, I think one thing is really obvious – have a better backup plan. Ensure buses are available at very short notice if something goes wrong with the trains, ensure that people are encouraged to walk or take the bus from the city to Eden Park, run direct trains from the south to Eden Park to take some pressure off Britomart, have more staff on to communicate what’s going on at all times, don’t let the trains get so full, don’t let so many people around key transport nodes.

And for goodness sakes, pedestrianise Queen Street on game days. Something I’ve been saying for months, if not years. All these things are pretty “no brainers” in my opinion and I can’t fathom why they weren’t in place on Friday. With the number of people in town, things were always going to be incredibly challenging on Friday, but with better planning, better communication, greater responsiveness and flexibility to change plans that weren’t working, I think that things would have never got anywhere near as bad as they did.

If transport runs smoothly for the rest of the tournament, I think by the end people will be going “well apart from that hiccup on the first night, Auckland’s transport system actually did pretty well.” But if we get one more disaster, then I think the tournament, Auckland and in particular our public transport system will be tarnished really really badly.

Let’s not stuff this up again.

33 comments to RWC transport fail – and what to do about it

  • Luke

    big issue seems to be no extra services were added during the day at all. Looks like peak time frequencies were needed all afternoon.
    Seems amazing million were spent on a back-up plan rebuilding the strand, but no thought for much easier back-up plans. Also much more legiblity was needed. Reading on Duncan Garners blog no one knew where to get the buses from. Need a couple of well publicized departure points, and advertise these, especially at Britomart if there is train trouble.
    Also all the hype about Queens Wharf, especially the ‘Cloud’ was ridiculous, not to mention the money spent.
    Especially as seemingly little thought went into handling crowds, or entertainment any where else in the CBD.

    Looks like there was a big vaccuum between the Council and the meddling govt and minister who focused far too much on the cloud. Len should get some of the heat for this, but so should Key and McCully should not escape.

  • AC

    I think train staff and organizers in town should’ve said to people, ‘please walk if you can, the trains are delayed and too full.’
    If staff could’ve communicated better it would have helped hugely.

  • Scott

    “staff should have been dispatched to all train stations”

    Your not very realistic admin. On I bet all/most AT staff were already on duty at britomart/kingsland/civic etc and were needed there. You cant scramble 30+ well informed staff in an hour or two.

    “Ensure buses are available at very short notice if something goes wrong with the trains”

    Again, Where are the resources going to come from? Normal Friday peak +special services means there wouldn’t be a lot of spare buses or drivers. In addition keeping anything on very short notice standby is nearly as expensive as operating it (you have to pay fixed equipment and staffing costs, you only save on running costs such as fuel). If you are going to have buses on standby you might as well just run them to provide more capacity.

  • San Luca

    A very good analysis of what happened.
    I do not think there was 200,000 people at the waterfront and 60,000 at the game. I think part of that 60,000 were downtown. I arrived downtown around 7pm and as far as crowds go it was fairly pleasant, however not with their drinking behaviour. There needed to be 2 party centrals because I did not feel safe walking through the drunken teens afterwards. It was almost 1 bottlesmash from a riot breaking out

  • John Dalley

    My cousins used the train in to Britomart and said that they had been packed full like dardines and that tha staff had no show of collecting monies or managing the crowd.
    What also puzzeled them was the amount of buses downtown that where sitting empty displaying “Not in Service” signs when it was obvious by that stage that the trains had no show of coping.
    They where not unhappy as they said it was a great night but as should have been expected, the numbers around town were huge.

  • Gian

    Auckland Transport Chairman Mark Ford has got the solution: to pray: “But whatever you plan for, there is always going to be an act of God. I hope the good Lord is on our side.” From todays Herald.
    It’s always that naughty Lucifer tampering with the trains.

    • Zabelle

      Is he the only AT person to have made any statement? The normally mouthy AT ‘communcations manager/spokewoman’ has been strangely quiet since Friday night. No doubt the amount of spin required has made her dizzy.

  • I actually think crowd control was the bigger issue. It was only luck and the goodwill of the crowd that there wasn’t a riot or people crushed and injured.

  • Sanctuary

    The whole emergency button/fire extinguisher fiasco was known from the U-2 concert. A simple but effective way to ensure that never happened again would have been to station world cup volunteer staff in each carriage to keep an eye on proceedings. Surely no more than a few dozen volunteers during the critical times would have done the job.

  • Christopher T

    @ Gian

    You’ve got to remember Mark Ford’s father was an Anglican vicar; the God stuff is in his DNA!

  • Graeme

    I caught the western line home early that afternoon, around 2:30.

    In my carriage, the heating seemed to be broken. It was stiflingly hot, even when empty.

    If that carriage was kept in service, and packed with people, it would have been a sauna.

  • Nick

    200,000 people? This seems to be the standard number that they trot out when they see a crowd of people downtown. The true number could be 30,000 according to this story http://www.nzherald.co.nz/index.cfm?objectid=10693318

    • obi

      That is an interesting article. So, at the 2 people per sqm figure for a crowded event, 200,000 people would need 100,000 sqm. That is a space 5km long by 20m across. I’ve picked 20m as a quick estimate of the width of an Auckland CBD street. Obviously the waterfront was packed and Quay is wider than 20m. People were walking up and down Queen but the density was low. Footpaths were packed but they’re only 3m wide or so, and you’re not going to fit 2 people in to a 1sqm space if they’re moving.

      My gut feeling is the 200,000 was too high. Maybe double the actual figure?

      • James B

        I think the 200,000 is most likely close to the total number of visitors to the CBD. This would include people in bars, restaurants etc. It is also likely that not every person was there at the same time.

  • Malcolm

    There were so many problems compounding the situation with the crowds and transport and so many organisational failures, by Auckland Council and its related subsidiaries and by private contractors to the Council, that it’s difficult to know where to start. I’m going to comment about the ferries however, since that’s what affected me.

    I left work to catch my usual Birkenhead ferry at 4pm. Our offices are at the top of Princes Wharf, a matter of a mere 500m or so to the Ferry building. It took me over an hour to walk this distance so one question I have is just who is the f*ckwit at Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development Ltd (ATEED; Council run) who thought that putting the stage in the middle of Quay Street with only 15m to get past or fall into the harbour, would be in any way a good idea?

    Even if only the expected 50k people had turned up, this would have been a disaster. As it was, with so many people trying to get through that one crunch-point it was almost impossible to move, the Police could not do anything because they too were hemmed in by the crowds and the security people were worse that useless because they did not supervise the fences that were put up to supposedly create a free way of a couple of metres along the harbour-edge. It was amazing that nobody was hurt of fell into the harbour although a lot of children that I saw were getting very distressed in the crush.

    And why did ATEED think that they should put the music and fireworks right in the way of everyone trying to get into Britomart to get transport out to the opening ceremony and game, and also in the way of anyone trying to catch ferries (or get off them) or get to the cloud? Does nobody there understand the notion of free people-movement as a great way to help crowd control? Where was the co-ordination between events organisers and transport and crowd control? Non-existent is where it was…

    These people can’t organise the proverbial in a brewery.

    Fullers were also culpable – the numbers of people catching ferries was huge and Fullers had only the usual small boats scheduled on for the busy Birkenhead and Bayswater runs, while one of their largest boats sat idly doing absolutely nothing on the next wharf. I felt sorry for the poor Fullers staff member who was given the unenviable job of yelling out to the crowds which ferries were leaving from which berth because the wharves have pathetically useless signage. (The “usuals” on the ferries know where they’re going but the vast majority of people that evening had no idea.) I was standing in front of her when a man suggested she get a loud-hailer so she could be heard – her response was that Fullers didn’t have one. She must have been hoarse with a raw throat within an hour.

    Contingency planning is all about risk. You may not need the risk planning and hope that you won’t but in the worst-case, the plan should be there. It seems to me that the various organisers had got into their heads that the expected numbers downtown were around 50k; they didn’t consider what might happen if there were more people than that or, if they did, they certainly didn’t make contingency plans for it (and if they did make such plans, they failed utterly to put them into action).

    And you know what’s even worse than all this? A friend of mine who works at Auckland Transport told me just a couple of days before the event that the expected numbers downtown had been revised up to maybe 100k. If they knew this, why the hell did this debacle happen?

  • Oscar

    Interesting article but I really don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration. Town was much busier than the Christmas parade due to the number of different areas where people were gathered.

    Firstly you haven’t counted anyone indoors. A look up at the apartment show most balconies full of people lets say 1000 apartments with 20 people = 20,000. Many offices had extended Friday drinks 200 @ 50 people = 10,000 and finally bar say 50 @ 200 people = 10,000

    Easily 40,000 Indoors then there is the outdoor areas.

    Queens Wharf = 15,000 | Quay St 500m x 20m x 4 = 40,000 | Britomart Area (above station) 100m x 50m x 3 = 15,000 = North Wharf 500m x 15m x 2 = 18,000 | The Viaduct 1000m x 4m x 5 = 20,000 | Te whero wharf 200m x 25m x 4 = 20,000 | QE2 100m x 50m x 3 = 15,000 | Other vantage points e.g. Hobson St viaduct, End of tank farm, Rose Gardens etc. 20,000 | Else where mingling in streets 20,000 (Queen, Fort, High St etc.)

    That adds up to 180,000 outdoors. Obviously those numbers are rough but it does give an indication of how the number can be estimated. It definitely shows there were well over 100,000 and quite possible 200,000+.

    • obi

      Oscar… The expert in the article says that 2 people per sqm is “tightly packed”. I suspect that precludes movement more vigorous than shuffling slowly. But your estimates rely on 4 and even 5 people per sqm. That would mean a big chunk of the CBD being filled to the sort of density you see on a rush hour Tokyo train, and Friday just wasn’t at that sort of crush density.

      • Malcolm

        Hi Obi, I can tell you from direct personal experience that the number of people between Princes Wharf and Queen’s Wharf was indeed at that kind of level (the Tokyo trains). Or worse.

        It was shoulder-to-shoulder on all sides and so tightly packed nobody was able to move forward or backwards to get between the people all around. Kids were getting squeezed even when adults like me tried to make some space for them. The Council are just damn lucky they don’t have compensation suits on their hands for some of those children getting crushed.

        • obi

          “between Princes Wharf and Queen’s Wharf was indeed at that kind of level”

          I can believe that, but that’s only about 200m. But if 200k people were at the waterfront at a density of 4 people per sqm then they’d extend all the way from Westhaven to Mechanics Bay. Assuming all the roads were closed to traffic and people were packed in for the full width of the street.

        • Scott

          I’ll second that, The viaduct/Quay was jammed to a density where it was extremely difficult to move. Queen street wasn’t so bad, but still was spilling off the footpath.

          I saw lots of people using the council multistory car-park near the viaduct as a vantage point. Also west-field downtown was really full on the ground floor and I bet the food court was packed out. I think pretty much every restaurant in the area was full. Ive got a photo of the little fullers building with the roof full of people.

          There were so many people.

  • Matt

    I’d like to commend Fullers for their organisation (three ferries just doing a continuous loop, no set times, you just queued and got on the next one), information dissemination (man with megaphone updating the whole queue whenever he had info come in) and ability to move massive amounts of people around in a manner that befitted a true public transport solution. I can only speak for my experience at Half Moon bay but I hear that they were all in constant contact with AT and they were nothing short of superb. My wife and i queued for nearly two hours from about 3pm, only to be told shortly before 5pm that AT had stopped the ferries unloading in Auckland and that we would have to figure something else out to get to the game (we’d originally planned to ferry in and walk up the fan trail). So, we walked home, not happy at all but still very impressed with Fullers. Drove to Botany and jumped on the 5:15pm dedicated bus to Eden Park. 7 people on the bus. Yes, that’s right, 7. Including the driver, and us. I was gobsmacked. We didn’t stop once until we got to Eden Park. The roads were nothing short of dead. On the way back from the game, we got a bus that dropped off at the Civic and then walked down to the ferry terminal, got straight on a ferry and came home. Easy.

    AT clearly have issues with their risk planning. Whoever did the risk assessment for this event should be taken out and beaten around the head, then fired for incompetence. So, this is what I think should have happened:

    1. Don’t put the gates to ‘party central’ right next to where ALL the public transport loads and unloads. I mean, what were they thinking? It’s retarded.
    2. Don’t put the giant TV screens right outside where ALL the public transport loads and unloads. It just creates ANOTHER choke point.
    3. Have MULTIPLE additional venues that people can be directed to, as soon as the previous one is full. Party Central, Viaduct, Aotea Sq, Albert Park, Silo Park, the Wynard Quarter, Victoria Park, the park overlooking Mission Bay, the Domain etc etc etc. Places that can handle massive numbers of people, not places with a 15,000 capacity. Have Big TV screens in all these locations so people can actually see what’s going on. Maintain good walking through routes to each of these places and don’t let people congregate on those routes.
    4. Close the ENTIRE CBD to traffic. Pedestrianise the whole damn lot. Anything that doesn’t impede emergency services being able to get to and from where they need to go, close it. Allow people to fan out, it’s much easier that way.
    5. Don’t run the normal services on trains, or if you have to, don’t run them for the three hours or so either side of the games, and put on as many extra trains as you can get.
    6. Have a system on the trains that is used in other countries under special event circumstances – if the emergency cord is pulled, passengers are informed immediately of what has just happened and an announcement is made that the passengers now have ten minutes to use the intercoms to let the driver know it’s a genuine emergency. In a packed train, it’s easy to get a message to someone who’s by the intercom if someone’s had a heart attack or whatever. If it’s some twat who’s pulled the cord, the train carried on as normal. Minimal disruption of service and above all, passengers are kept informed.
    6. Don’t let AT organise your event. ever.

    I can predict what will happen on the next big game (probably Aus Vs Ireland this weekend) – the roads will be clogged to capacity as fans who now don’t trust the public transport all drive to the game and that’s where the carnage will be. I for one will be trying the ferry again but will definitely have a plan B just in case.

    • obi

      “Close the ENTIRE CBD to traffic. Pedestrianise the whole damn lot.”

      That would be extremely sensible. Then terminate buses on the edge of the pedestrianised area.

      I think Friday has shown that trains are not ideal for this sort of exercise. One minor failure brings all following services to a halt, and then problems multiply as people resort to self-exiting on to the lines in order to avoid a humid crush. Rail is not a resilient technology that will re-route around problems.

      On the other hand, buses and cars are generally able (excepting choke points like the Harbour Bridge) to re-route themselves around problems and a single or multiple failures are easily bypassed. The same applies to walking, which should have been the default mode of transport between the CBD and Eden Park. The council could have closed off streets for walkers, and set up drinks and portaloos at intervals.

      And borrow buses from somewhere else for the event. One of the best examples of special event transport organisation I’ve ever experienced is at the Avalon Air Show near Geelong. There is a motorway connecting Geelong and Melbourne, and trains were leaving Melbourne every few minutes in the morning. I was resigned to a long wait for a bus to the airport at the transfer, but when I arrived there must have been 50 buses waiting in a vast carpark. The price was included in the rail ticket. As soon as they filled them they’d leave, which probably meant one departure every 20 or 30 seconds. They had city markings on them from all over the state.

      • Penfold

        This is where a city loop would allow for much more flexibility in the rail system as you can reverse the system in the event of a blockage. It may also be an indication that we need more switches on the network to allow for trains to pass a train stopped by people pulling the emergency cord.

        Melbourne Grand Prix does the same thing with trams that you mention for the Avalon Air Show. It makes sense to include the price in the ticket.

  • Two things should be happening right now;

    Transport dept should be doing a huge autopsy on the disaster and actually putting the lessons they learnt from the previous dry runs (U2, Eden Park match a couple weeks back) into practice.

    Len Brown should be personally handing out free rail passes to annoyed passengers, and then taking the train, in full view of the public, to the next game.

    Aucklanders bought into PT and trusted it. They were let down. They should be apologised to and comped the hell out of right now. Otherwise they’ll never trust PT again.

  • Chris Harris

    You can model pedestrian flows on the computer these days. I was at an engineering seminar in Christchurch in March 2010 where an consultancy had a stand showing how they had modelled ped flows for events. It would be very interesting to see whether this was ever considered for the RWC and whether if so it was turned down in some “nah, don’t need that” sense.

  • Chris, I’ve seen simulation for the fire evacuation of Shed 10 at the Cloud at a recent conference I went to. From memory it took about six minutes to get people out of the shed. Assumption was that people make rational decisions when drunk… Also probably assumed that there wasn’t a massive crush of people along Quay St.

  • Stanley

    So, would there be any “head rolling” after all these? – it seems everyone at the senior management levels of the relevant organisations (Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and ATEED, Veolia, etc) still defended for him/herself over the chao last Friday and claimed they haven’t done anything wrong…. – it is perhaps really just an act of God.~

    Another fact is Auckland (and perhaps New Zealand), being a “Big Little City”, is not used to such a big event and is unfamiliar with the crowd control practice… Imagin if Rugby is a far more famous sport in the world likes soccer and the RWC receives a bigger attention from the world media, what happened in Auckland last Friday will doom to be a laughing stock.

  • Icebird

    From what I could tell, the crowds downtown were clustering anywhere they could see the screens. With that in mind, they could have easily dispersed the crowds a bit by having more screens, spread wider… further along Quay St, Takutai Square in Britomart, up Queen Street. Downtown had enough to room to accommodate the crowds if they were willing to use it.

    As a counterpoint to all the negativity about opening night, I used the event buses to get to the Japan – France game at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday and they worked superbly. They had a steady stream of buses picking people up at the Civic, and after the game the loading areas were well indicated by signs and event staff. I think they had about 6 different loading slots for the Mid-Town buses alone, so the crowds were getting moved out very promptly. (Judging by the parking lot, it seemed like they had requisitioned every bus on the North Shore for the job).

  • Doris

    The main problem was that there were NO EXTRA buses or Trains put on from the suburbs into the city. The bus drivers were already short staffed and if they had been asked they would have also advised the authorities that the last bus is always over packed! What is the point of having buses and trains leaving every 5 minutes from Britomart but not entering the city!

  • Ari

    I don’t like the idea of compensation at all. That’s my rate money that will compensating people for not having a plan B and C and not getting to Eden park early or being too lazy to walk the 30 minutes to Eden park. The buses from Aotea Centre to Eden park worked perfectly well. Sure, it was a massive screw up and completely ruined many people’s nights, but why should I (via the council/AT or whoever) have to pay compensation to someone else?

  • Dobbo

    It is a shame that there were failures in the transport system and that some people missed out or got frustrated.

    Auckland is not alone in experienceing these sorts of problems and world media is not reporting it. I’ve caught PT to sporting and other events (concerts etc) around the world with varing levels of success or frustration. Paris in 2004 to watch the ABs I genuinely thought someone would get accidentally pushed onto the tracks due to massive overcrowding on the metro. Also it often took 2-3 hours to get home from Twickenham and Wembley in London. The Australians seem to do it best I’ve seen, especially in Brisbane where Suncorp Stadium is basically in the CBD and walking distance to 3 – 4 different train stations. Melbourne also.

    I think crowd control was the big issue in Auckland, and a symptom was a breakdown in the PT. Why didn’t they issue free tickets to the waterfront? Then they could have guaranteed the numbers heading into the city… No ticket no entry? That is how large free events are run in London (Live8 concerts in Hyde Park etc).

  • Ari

    So Quay St(from Hobson to Britomart Place) is being closed from 12 noon Friday to 11pm Sunday EVERY weekend till the end of RWC. As decreed by Minister Murray.

    A great way for Auckland to experience a pedestrianised Quay Street without Council arguing over it for months. So we should make the most of it while it lasts. The only problem is that it will cause major congestion in the PM peak on fridays which will spill off all over the rest of the network.

    No plans to close Queen St but Customs Queens may be shut depending on pedestrian demand.

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