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:
- Organisers expected around 50,000 people to head downtown to enjoy the festivities, but around 200,000 people actually showed up.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.