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March rail drop: temporary blip or not?

Matt’s post a couple of weeks ago noted an incredibly rare event for Auckland: a month where rail patronage was actually lower than the same month the year before. In March 2012 there were 1,047,347 journeys on the rail network – a decline of around 70,000 from March 2011. There were a number of mitigating factors for this drop – such as one less work day, fewer special events and an additional weekend when parts of the network were closed. However, it was still disappointing to see a decline as (outside December and January network closures) it is many many years since rail patronage actually went backwards when compared to the same month a year before. Here are the detailed numbers for March 2012:

 While the Onehunga Line saw a small increase in ridership, the Western and Southern/Eastern lines saw a similar level of decline Рjust under 7%. I must say this was particularly surprised for the Western, which has otherwise seen a pretty steady increase in ridership over the past year (somewhat boosted by the Rugby World Cup in September and October): In comparison, the Southern/Eastern line has seen much lower growth in more recent times, meaning that the decline was perhaps a bit more expected: By including Onehunga Line riders, the graph above hides what the more detailed tables have shown to be very low rates of growth on the southern and eastern lines for most of the last year.

There are a couple of things changing on the rail network over the next couple of months which will make future rail patronage totals interesting to observe.

  • ¬†With Manukau Station open, I will be looking forward to seeing whether that has much impact on the numbers. I suspect the low current level of service, combined with not many buses yet being integrated with the station, will mean that Manukau won’t have much effect for now.
  • The fairly sharp increase in rail fares as of today and whether they impact on ridership. Rail no longer has a cost advantage over buses for single journeys so it will be insightful to see the extent to which people chose to catch the train based on cost, rather than the other advantages it may offer over the bus (or disadvantages, as the case may be).

To do a little bit of rough predicting myself, I’m guessing that we’ll see low levels of patronage increase on the rail network over the next few months unless petrol prices rocket up further from their current levels. The timetable improvements which coincided with Manukau Station opening were incredibly disappointing: we’re still waiting for 10 minute peak frequencies on the western line, still waiting for 15 minute inter-peak frequencies on the main lines, still waiting for something better than hourly weekend services on the western line and still waiting for trains to travel beyond Henderson on Sundays on the western line. Pretty much all of this was meant to have happened by now, and until it does I struggle to see why patronage would improve much.

In the longer run though, I certainly doubt we’ve reached saturation level in terms of demand for rail travel. This is for a number of reasons:

  • It seems as though Auckland Transport is doing some good work on redesigning Auckland’s bus network to have services feed into rail, rather than wastefully compete with it. In places like Perth, Vancouver and Toronto, close to half of passengers using rail arrive at their stations on the bus, showing huge potential for growth from this area.
  • The service improvements outlined above should actually happen at some point in the relatively near future.
  • The rollout of integrated ticketing should boost rail use, even in advance of a redesigned bus network, as people are able to use the same ticket for the bus as they do for the train.
  • The arrival of our electric trains will make rail travel much faster and more pleasant.
  • The likelihood of petrol prices continuing to increase means that driving will become increasingly less affordable and attractive from a pricing point of view.

I suppose the really interesting question is how long will a short-term lull in patronage growth last, before these longer term improvements really kick in. It may turn out that March was just a “one-off” event and we’ll return to double-digit growth rates in rail patronage from April onwards. We may see the promised service improvements actually happening in the next few months – which should boost off-peak patronage in particular. We may actually see integrated ticketing finally happening (which does remind me, what is happening with that?).

Clearly are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of guesswork on this issue. However, one thing is for certain: the longer it takes for rail patronage growth to return to 10%+ year-on-year, the harder Auckland’s task will be in convincing central government that the City Rail Link is a worthwhile project. And that is worrying.

14 comments to March rail drop: temporary blip or not?

  • Matt L

    One thing to remember is that the Onehunga line patronage also includes patronage from southern line stations, AT estimates that about 60% comes from them.

    The timetable changes were definitely disappointing, especially seeing as AT had promised for months that the Western line would get a boost.

    There is also an update to the transport committee on integrated ticketing at the May meeting so hopefully we find out then what is happening.

  • Peter in Sydney

    There are NO MORE CARRIAGES available to boost any peak hour services and there will not be any until the electrics arrive. To run a Manukau service in the peak takes carriages from other services. If you want more frequent peak hour services anywhere it will mean shorter trains and it will mean less chance to recover from Britomart bottleneck problems because there would be more trains trying to squeeze through there. So for now during the peaks…what you see is all you will get. Off peak and Sundays is a whole different story so keep hammering that one. BTW in Matt L’s explaining capacity constraints post one can see from his graph that if the electrics are even 1 year late, which is not uncommon with big projects like this then there will be a capacity shortfall so perhaps wishing patronage to soar is not really desirable.

  • L.E

    Peter is correct in his thinking that there is no more rolling stock available to increase services.
    I would like to point out that even with the new EMU’s i cant see journey times decreasing too much as we still have line speeds set at 70 or 80kph, then lower speeds for hard curve areas such as coming out of Britmort to Nmkt(25kph), in and out of Newmarket / grafton(25kph)& through westfield via slyvia park (40kph) to name a few. So unless these rail issues are also dealt with actual travel times may remain relativly similar.

  • Chris Randal

    I’m getting a bit sick of the mantra “The likelihood of petrol prices continuing to increase” when this is patently not happening.

  • Anyone know how these figures are collated? Would the rail figures be down because not all fares are collected at peak periods?

    • Matt

      That’s long been a problem, though, and the figures aren’t, can’t be, just based on collection of fares. After all, how would you count users of multi-trip tickets, or passes, or special event tickets? Train managers use estimates (or actual counts if the train is sufficiently empty) of passengers on board at particular locations to flesh out the patronage data.

      • Matt L

        I believe it is a mix between head counts on some days at a few specific locations on the network and ticket sales. Passes and multi trip tickets are counted forward from the day of sale, this is quoted in the patronage report as one reason that March’s numbers were so high last year, there was a fare increase just before March and they suspect that a lot of people would have brought tickets in advance which would have flowed through to the results. Basically I can’t see us getting more accurate results until HOP is rolled out and AT can see exactly how many trips are taken (that are paid for)

        • Matt

          Interesting about the forward counting of tickets. I don’t use rail all that much, but buy a multi-trip because it’s more cost-effective. It might take me months to use all 10 rides. I can see how a monthly pass can be safely counted forward from day of sale, but a multi-trip ticket is as likely to be used over a period of weeks as it is to be used over a working fortnight.

          • Matt L

            Even monthlies can’t be counted exactly e.g. my wife and I are halfway through a month yet because of the price change a brought new ones last week that will we will start after our current ones finish. That’s two weeks of doubled up patronage in May and will be two weeks not reported in June.

  • Matt

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, until the Southern Line has regular timetables it won’t see steady patronage growth. The splitting between the Eastern and the Southern buggers things up for Otahuhu (though it gets all the Eastern Line services, of which there are many), Penrose, Ellerslie (which is a fairly busy station), Greenlane and Remuera. There are some massive gaps in the morning peak (between 8 and 9 there are gaps of 19 and 20 minutes between some trains at Ellerslie), and if you miss the 19:25 from Britomart via Newmarket you’re then waiting for a full 50 minutes until the 20:15; on top of a 20 minute gap between the 18:55 and the 19:15.

    I really don’t give a flying fruitcake how they fix it, but AT desperately needs to do something about this timetable if the Southern Line is to have a chance in hell of growing. The service frequency failure is dramatic, and it does nothing to encourage people to use the trains.

  • David

    Is a ten minute peak frequency on the Western Line seriously in prospect?. There are quite a few level crossings on busy roads along the line, and it’s hard to imagine how they’ll cope with being closed for 2 minutes in every 10 during peak rush hour traffic. Ten might just work any higher frequency and they’re going to have to do some pretty serious work at those locations.

    Written from Tokyo where Shinjuku Station’s DAILY patronage is 3.8 million people… something like 60 people a second for 18 hours a day. Now that’s a rail network!

    • Matt L

      10 minute frequencies out west have been promised for years, I also doubt the level crossings are going to be that much worse than they are today. The bells tend to only last for about 30 seconds so perhaps a 1 minute delay if the timing of crossing trains works against you.

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