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 – just 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.