A report going to the Board of Auckland Transport on Monday about the hopeless on-time performance of Eastern Line trains reminded me of a pet annoyance of our rail system – and that is how utterly pathetic its performance statistics are. Even though we measure punctuality in an extremely generous manner, with a train that runs eight or even ten minutes late throughout its service but manages to catch up to being merely 4 minutes and 59 seconds late when reaching its destination being recording as “on time”, the headline statistics are still utterly horrific: almost 1 in 5 trains couldn’t even meet this standard in May:
To make matters worse, these numbers don’t distinguish between peak trains and off-peak trains – which clearly have very different load numbers. The chances of a train at peak times being delayed is probably greater (more passengers, tighter headways etc.) meaning that the proportion of passengers whose trips do not meet the punctuality standards might well be much higher than the table above indicates. I would really like Auckland Transport to start measuring delays in this way – weighting the trains according to their loads so we get a clearer picture about how reliable and punctual the rail network actually is for passengers.
Now clearly some of these delays are due to infrastructure improvements (for example the Eastern Line’s dip in January was because of temporary speed limits on the line after an upgrade), but if infrastructure was the main issue then I don’t think we’d see such a huge spread in punctuality across the different lines. It would seem, as a general rule, that the shorter the line is, the higher the punctuality is – with Onehunga standing out as a beacon for what the rest of the network should be doing.
The fact that punctuality seems to get a lot worse as the lines get longer suggests that the root of the problem is not about what happens to the trains between stops, but rather what happens at each stop. In other words, something called dwell management. Presumably, every timetable has a certain amount of time set aside for the period when the train is stationary and the doors are open – but (and anecdotal evidence from people who catch the train far more frequently than myself backs this up) train managers are really struggling to stick to this set time. Whether that’s because they can’t get through the crowds to the door, whether it’s because of the 17 times they seem to check whether everyone’s on or off the train, whether it’s because passengers are too slow in getting on or off or whether it’s because train managers get stuck counting out coins to give change in our 1930s-style ticketing system I’m not sure. But it seems as though that’s where the problem is.
Compare Auckland’s performance with a couple of nearby cities: Sydney and Melbourne – which have far more complicated and busy rail networks than Auckland, and often systems riddled with lots of equipment that is much older than what we have here (aside from our decrepit trains, the Auckland network has been pretty much completely rebuilt over the past decade). Melbourne, in the last couple of months has has punctuality of around 90-92%, while Sydney – which reports on peak-time punctuality (probably a tougher standard to meet due to higher loads), has always been above 90% and often about 95%:
Sydney and Melbourne are probably not even particularly good examples of particularly punctual rail systems from around the world. I was reading the other day that Singapore’s Metro system has an on-time performance statistic of 99.7% – and that’s with a standard of a train being measured late if it’s more than a minute late! So only 3 out of 1000 trains on the Singapore Metro system are more than a minute late – now that’s the kind of standard we should be aiming for!
The Auckland Transport Board Paper is depressingly hopeless in outlining plans for improving our utterly terrible punctuality statistics. One of the key proposals, it seems, is to slow the timetable down so everyone can suffer a much longer trip in order for the statistic to look a bit better:
Already most of our train timetables are significantly slower than they were a decade ago, even though literally billions of dollars has been spent on the rail network over that time to improve the system. A trip from the old Auckland station out to Waitakere used to take as little as 48 minutes. It’s over an hour these days from Britomart (admittedly a bit further away from Waitakere but not by that much) to Waitakere station.
These are not new problems, with the rail network being so unreliable. We’ve been hearing about the problems for years, throwing a huge amount of money to fix them and make the trains faster and more reliable. Yet it seems like it’s not working, which is hugely depressing and explains the rather exasperated tone of this blog post – we’ve been promised solutions for years! If I were Auckland Transport I would put in place a requirement for 90% on time performance across all lines within three months and if Veolia can’t reach that then they lose the contract. Melbourne’s on-time rail performance has improved hugely since they gave Veolia the boot – maybe it’s time for us to do the same.