Like I’m sure many of you are, I have been getting increasingly concerned about what is happening with rail patronage this year and it seemed like as soon as the RWC finished, the growth just hit a wall. The 12 month rolling patronage total is likely to drop quite a bit over the next few months as we finally work the RWC boost our of our system. A graph of rail patronage is below:
Patronage had been climbing pretty steadily for some time, it then took a sharp jump due to the RWC before hitting a plateau. The worrying thing is that this stalled growth could easily be picked up on by the likes of the government to claim that projects like the CRL are not needed. Yet while the graphs show that patronage has stalled, the last thing you could say is that the trains aren’t busy. I would regularly notice that people couldn’t get on to trains from places like New Lynn in the mornings due to them being so full. I would suggest that many of those people probably changed modes but would happily go back to trains if there was the capacity This got me wondering if perhaps the reason for the stall is not that we have soaked up the demand but that there simply isn’t the services available for people to use when they want to. Out west for example, there hasn’t been a timetable that added new services since September 2010 (and new timetable actually takes some away).
So after thinking about this for a while I decided that I wanted to see if there was any kind of correlation between the number of services that we run and our patronage. I only had a few copies of old timetables but with the help of some readers and Auckland Transport, I managed to get my hands on timetables from as far back as 1998. I started by looking at how many services are/were run each day and from there worked out how many services were run each month taking into account things like extra Friday services, weekends and public holidays. What I haven’t been able to include is the extra services run for events like the RWC or times when trains are running for upgrade works. Due to the erratic nature of comparing month to month I have looked at the 12 month rolling totals and after plugging in all of the numbers for as far back as I have patronage data I got this:
As you can see there does appear to be a pretty strong correlation between the number of services that are run and patronage. It really does suggest that one of the reasons we are seeing a plateau in patronage is very much likely to be at least partly the result of there not really having been any additional services put on for roughly two years. It is also perhaps worth noting that the timetable changes of the last couple number of years have not really added in any new peak services with the main increases being in the shoulder peak. This suggests there are probably quite a few gains to be had by continuing to increase not just peak services but also off peak services.
Of course we can put on more services but the next thing I wondered was what how the additional services that were put on impacted on their utilisation. In effect were we making the trains less efficient on an average passenger basis or were they any trends that we could see. So next I graphed the average number of passengers per service to see what the outcome was, I expected that as we added services to the network that their average utilisation would drop but then recover over time. What the graph shows though while that does happen to a degree, since we started improving our rail network not only have the number of people using the trains increased but so has the average number per service. This is shown below:
I suspect that part of the reason for the average numbers to increase over time is that as more services are put on, especially off peak, the rail network becomes a more viable option for a wider variety of trips. I was also interested to see how each line fared. It is a bit hard to separate out the Southern, Eastern and Onehunga patronage completely so I have kept them together. As expected the the Western line got a lot larger bump due to the RWC but even without that it seems to have been performing better. I wonder if that is due to have more destinations along the line providing better off peak patronage?
So if frequencies are key to boosting patronage what could we expect for the future. Well the RPTP gives us a clue as to what is planned once we have our electric trains rolling and it appears that we will see much higher off peak frequencies than we have now.
Using this data I made a little timetable to try and work out how many services we would actually have. This came out at roughly double what we have now so assuming we see a similar trend and a similar level of service utilisation then it appears we can roughly expect patronage to double to around 22m which was about the figure that was suggested we would reach by 2021 in the CRL business case. I do actually think that the utilisation number will probably increase a bit further though once we get our new electric trains due to the changes in the bus network, them being a more attractive choice and their larger capacity. With an average of say 130 passengers per service, this would see patronage on the rail network up around 27m per year and in desperate need of more services that can only really be provided with the CRL.