Matt’s post on the latest patronage figures confirmed something that has been brewing for a while now: rail patronage isn’t growing anymore. Let’s track rail patronage increases for the past while, each time comparing against the patronage of the same month the year before:
Just looking briefly at the graph above it seems as though the Rugby World Cup was a turning point – for the worse. Up until (and obviously including) the World Cup there was really steady patronage growth in most months, but after it there has been almost nothing (April’s figures are likely to be people pre-purchasing tickets before fares went up).
Let’s now look at it in percentage terms, once again comparing each month since November 2010 with the same month the year before: Once again we see a pretty clear split between pre World Cup and post World Cup. One does wonder whether the chaos on opening night of that tournament has had a lasting legacy in wrecking the perception of Auckland’s rail system. It completely failed in its time of greatest need. Yet nobody’s ever really been held accountable for what happened – which is a mystery to me.
Another obvious candidate as the cause behind the recent trends are the continued reliability problems which are occurring on the rail network. You can see from the graph below, which comes from June’s patronage report, that ever since February the performance has been worse than (or the same as) the same month last year:
What truly staggers me about Auckland’s rail system is that these statistics don’t seem to get any better over time, even though we’re spending huge amounts of money on upgrading the network – installing new signals, new track and so forth. In fact it almost seems like we’re getting worse – a truly depressing situation.
While there are fluctuations on a month by month basis, over time it seems as though the proportion of delay minutes due to network issues (in blue) is declining, but the proportion of delay minutes due to operations (in red) is increasing. In other words, Veolia’s doing an increasingly poor job at running the train system.
Other possible explanations include a series of fare increases on rail, which have now brought rail fares into line with bus fares. While this makes sense from a logical point of view, it may have put some people off catching the train – bus patronage has continued to blossom over the past year or so in contrast to stalling rail use. Further, the timetable improvements earlier this year – when the Manukau Line opened – were incredibly disappointing. Long-standing promises to provide 10 minute peak time Western Line frequencies, better than hourly frequencies out West on the weekends, 15 minute interpeak frequencies, half-hourly Onehunga Line frequencies, were all broken. We saw hardly any boost to rail frequencies, aside from the introduction of trains to Manukau – which hardly anyone is using because they come so infrequently.
Now for all we know this may just be a “blip” – although looking at the very first graph of this post we’re now coming up on a six month long blip. But really this couldn’t come at a worse time in the justification of future investment in the rail network – particularly in terms of convincing the government that the City Rail Link project is necessary. At the moment I’m quite sure Central Government’s thinking “hey if rail patronage has stopped growing, maybe we really don’t need that project.” Of course such an approach is very short-sighted, as rail will simply have to play an increased role in Auckland’s transport network over time (it’s the only bit with the spare capacity to significantly increase its throughput) and the CRL is needed for that. But really, this isn’t a good look.
So how can we turn this around? Well there are clearly a few things that need to be done in the very short term:
- Get some significant improvements to punctuality and reliability statistics, especially operational improvements (which should be the easiest to achieve). Seriously consider firing Veolia if they don’t improve their performance.
- Implement the promised timetable improvements, especially off-peak as they don’t require additional trains. Some improvements like half-hourly all day service to Onehunga would be so simple to provide it’s absolutely stupid we don’t have it now. Weekend trains on the Western Line should be half-hourly, trains should actually travel past Henderson on Sundays (what is this, the 1950s?)
- Get the HOP card up and running on rail as soon as possible so we can actually count patronage properly and can hopefully crack down on fare evasion, which is currently rife.
- Roll out HOP card onto all buses by November 30th, as previously promised, so that people can start using the bus network to feed into the rail system, rather than having to provide two independent an competing PT networks.
I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the fate of the City Rail Link project may rest in sorting out the above issues as soon as possible. Time to get off your ass and do something Auckland Transport!