The owners of any heritage cars or buildings will tell you that it costs a lot to keep them operating in good condition. Well it’s not surprising that the same is true for our trains, some of which were actually museum pieces before Auckland bought them and put them back to work for another 20 years. Well its been about a year since we last heard about it so is time that we were reminded by the NZ Herald. In an article today they say:
Auckland trains are costing almost as much as the region’s buses to run, even though the buses carry almost five times as many passengers.
Council transport chairman Mike Lee is blaming a lack of competition, in which train operator Veolia had its management contract extended for more than two years in March without public notification.
Although the trains made a record of almost 11 million passenger trips in the year to June 30 – compared with 2.5 million when Britomart opened nine years ago – that cost ratepayers and the Government $105.7 million.
It was well up on $87 million for 9.9 million passengers the year before, after hefty increases in track access charges paid to KiwiRail and in Veolia’s management fee.
Buses cost $110.9 million, but made 54.7 million passenger trips.
Wellington, with a simpler operating system under which KiwiRail runs electric trains as well as maintaining the tracks, spent $73 million on 11.3 million trips.
Now first I agree that $105 million is a huge amount of money and a simple way to think about it would be to divide that by the 11 million trips a year to come up with a pretty high per passenger payment. Of course that amount ignores fares, which probably come to somewhere in the $30-40 million a year range – with that money going directly to Auckland Transport (rather than the situation with most bus contracts where the operator pockets the fares and gets topped up with a subsidy). It also ignores the fact that rail trips are, on average, much much longer than bus trips. This is noted in the article:
Average rail trips of about 16.5km are also longer than bus rides of 6.6km, and transport planners point to the far greater congestion relief given to motorists by trains, as buses share roads with cars and trucks.
The really big jumps are in the amount paid to Veolia, which more than doubles between 2010/2011 and 2012/2013. As the actual number of trains in operation hasn’t doubled over this period (in fact it’s hardly increased at all) this is difficult to understand. The other big area of increase relates to track access charges – basically a payment to KiwiRail for one public entity to utilise the network of another public entity. A big money-go-round.
I also presume the big jump in 2011/12 might have something to do with all the train services provided during the World Cup and perhaps the beginning of loan repayments for the new electric trains – even though the operating cost savings they bring are not yet being enjoyed.
And this is the critical thing here. At the moment our trains have a ticketing system from the 1950s that requires a huge number of staff members on each train. It also has trains from the 1960s and the huge maintenance bills that must come with them. But all this is due to change over the next few years: integrated ticketing should result in a far less labour-hungry operating model for the rail system while the new electric trains will be far far cheaper to operate and maintain compared to what we have now. Rail operating costs will look ugly for a couple of years yet, but the real focus should go on ensuring that these costs come down – even while rail services are further improved to become an integral part of the frequent transit network – as a result of electrification and integrated ticketing.
Hopefully we’ll also finally see the rail contract going out to tender and an operator come in that’s far better than Veolia.