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Why are the electric trains so slow?

In the first week or two of the Onehunga Line’s switch to electric trains there were major issues with the trains keeping to timetable, apparently due to overly conservative speed restrictions being put in the trains as part of their safety systems. It seems like the Onehunga Line’s bugs are sorting themselves out in more recent times, but a further article yesterday highlighted that it might be a long time before we see the trains providing their promised speed boost:

Auckland’s new $400 million electric trains will run as slow as their diesel counterparts for at least another year, Auckland Transport says.

Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said the electric trains would reach their full potential after all 39 diesel passenger trains were removed from the network.

“We can’t really get the proper benefit from them until the full rollout when everything is electric, which will be the middle of next year,” Hannan said.

Also, new timetables will need to be introduced and software controlling the trains’ speed, called European Train Control Systems (ETCS), will need to be reprogrammed to improve transit times, he said.

The ETCS is a protection system to assist train drivers and ensure advised speeds and signal rules are adhered to and to prevent collisions. If drivers operate trains outside a designated speed range the system intervenes to limit speed.

The restrictions created by running mixed electric and diesel fleets is understandable, as otherwise the electrics would soon catch up to any diesel train ahead of them and throw out timetable consistency. The issue with ECTS is more worrying though, as this should have been sorted out a long time ago to ensure the promised 10 minute faster journey times between Britomart and Swason/Papakura are delivered.

Adding to this worry, the train drivers’ union RMTU doesn’t seem to think the electric trains will be able to deliver the promised speed increase without a major upgrade to the signalling system:

But the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) said the 57 new electric trains would not be able to speed up until a costly upgrade of the ETCS software.

RMTU general secretary Wayne Butson said Auckland Transport had bought the cheapest, entry-level ETCS software.

The only way to increase speeds would be to upgrade to more expensive versions, which could handle trains running closer to each other, he said.

“I’m told that Auckland would operate a lot better if it purchased two or three versions higher,” Butson said.

Train drivers were frustrated they could not operate the trains to timetable, he said.

“We believe that it was a foreseeable issue.”

I’m not sure just how true this is as the same signalling systems is used in a number of countries including on some high speed lines while the stand two levels up is still under development so it’s not like we could have brought that. Also leading me to be cautious about Wayne Butsons comments is that the signalling system wasn’t brought by Auckland Transport but by Kiwirail (who own and run it) and the contracts for the system were signed before AT even existed.

If true that the signalling system is causing extra delays though then this is a screw-up of unbelievable proportions. We did not spend $1.1 billion on rail electrification and new trains to find that we can’t run them faster than the old ones because someone got cheap and nasty with the system. I sure hope the responsible parties sort the issue out to ensure the 10 minute time savings can be delivered as promised – otherwise a lot of heads will need to roll.

68 comments to Why are the electric trains so slow?

  • Chris Randal

    They are grounded now so the point is moot.

  • simon

    What do you mean Chris?

  • Barney

    Auckland’s 2 Dollar Shop culture applies even to the railways. If you buy cheap you get cheap.

  • It could be worse, we could have clowns who stuffed up the inter island ferries in charge of the system…. Oh wait….

    • Neil

      Well said Patrick. Nothing good will happen on rail while Kiwirail management run things. Speeds will be limited to the slowest freight train and signaling will remain 3rd world. With Auckland trying to increase its rail network, why would you centralize control in Wellington?

      • Geoff Blackmore

        In no way shape or form is the signalling “third world”. Auckland has just had its entire signalling system replaced by brand new equipment at a cost of $90m, and ERTMS level 1 is being installed additional to that, on the EMU’s. It’s a modern and reliable system by comparison to what there was previously.

        But New Zealand is run by the safety police who have determined that leaving train driving to train drivers is unacceptable, and have set the EMU’s up to an overly-cautious level of unprecedented proportions. There is absolutely no reason why EMU’s have to crawl along at 9km/h into Te Papapa station for example. Or travel in/out of Britomart at 9km/h, when the older trains are doing 25km/h.

        Don’t blame the equipment for New Zealand’s sad state of affairs with overzealous, red-tape entwined, “thal shalt not….” butt-covering exercises that have been born of our preponderance toward having too many bureaucrats employed in every aspect of running New Zealand.

        • Bevan

          9kph is crazily slow! I thought the new trains can both accelerate and brake faster than the diesels, so they should be allowed to pull into the stations faster because they can come to a stop faster too?
          Is that right, or am I mistaken?

          • Is it just inadequacy at Kiwi Rail, a culture of extreme arse-covering, or are they so dis-interested/antagonistic about Auckland’s passenger use of ‘their’ network that they’re quietly sabotaging it?

          • TheBigWheel

            The 9 km/h speed limit for EMUs at Britomart and Te Papapa sounds like a particularly loopy law for Paula Bennett to tackle

        • Alphatron

          I think Geoff is somewhat over dramatising things. Possibly the KiwiRail and AT engineers and operators are being overly cautious, but I expect that a safety case requirement to reduce risk to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) and a personal legal duty (with associated criminal penalties) under the Railways Act is focusing their minds.

          • Waspman

            They could go the whole way with safety and not get out of bed in the morning. And no Geoff is not over dramatising this, its the way it is. The diesels are faster and will be until this control system is sorted or of course its suffers death by committee with out of touch railway empires not wanting to give ground to each other.

            Its a bloody debacle, a huge amount of public money was spent promising faster trains, but all we’ve got is something as reliable and as fast as a mid 60’s Skoda!

        • Neil

          The 3rd world buys lots of new gear too. It doesn’t have the people to manage and run the gear. Looks like this is what we have in NZ. Anything to do with rail (ferries, trains, electric engines) turns to custard.

    • Ian

      Should have bought Hyundai Rotem. I see our Wellington trains speeding past my workplace everyday leaning into the big curve by the diesel depot and then pouring on the power down the straight to Wellington. On time arrivals around 95% and an almost equal %age of satisfied customers tell the story of the Korean trains.

  • Bryce P

    From what I’ve read on ETCS, a lot of what the union are saying doesn’t make sense. Level 1 is used on high speed (200km/h) lines in Europe. I agree that running with the diesels is an issue due to catch up but also think that we are going to see issues with freight in the near future, if we are not already. Can’t imagine high frequency on Eastern and Southern Lines while shared with slower freight trains. Greater focus will come on the 3rd main.

    • Yes I think the unions are playing some games here. Most likely trying to beat up AT for some gain/revenge. I believe there are probably some union members still unhappy about Kiwirail drivers being shifted to Transdev.

      • Hidden.

        No Matt, it’s more complex like many situations in rail, many of which never come to light (and nor should they). Part of it is the rail is set for freight, the signalling and ERTCS conflict (see if you can find out exactly the parameters for this) and (obviously) there ARE a fair few bugs with the overall set up and implementation. however, when the trains get running again the ERTCS should have been improved in many aspects. Or so I hear!
        Don’t just blame the Union for a multiple aspect problem.

    • Pete

      IIRC Level 1 is on track detection and management, Level 2 is GPS, radio, telemetry based autonomous system. You don’t want a train doing 110 km/h into the back of a train stuck at a station because a sensor failed, but that’s all fine at 90 km/h …

      • Alphatron

        Incorrect – Level 2 ETCS still retains trackside train detection but replaces line side signals with continuously updated cab signalling displays. Level 3 ETCS is moving block signalling with train position communicated from the train to a central computer. GPS not used in ETCS but is in the somewhat similar US Positive Train Control system

  • Christopher T

    All AT electric trains are suspended due – according to AT’s Twitter feed at 12:02 – to ‘an intermittent power fault’, whatever that means. Now, if this was a motorway project you could be assured that NZTA would be ‘investing’ taxpayer funds on nothing but the best: the best QC’s, the best ‘expert witnesses’, etc. As it’s a PT project, you can be assured that the relevant authorities will be spending taxpayer funds on ‘value for money’ ‘subsidies’, i.e. the cheapest possible solutions, because ‘85% of New Zealanders want to drive their cars and that’s where we’re going to invest the money’.

    • Bryce P

      I don’t believe they ‘cheaped’ out of ETCS. I think it has more to do with trying to shoehorn a bunch of activities, and capabilities of existing rolling stock, to match the EMU’s.

      • George D

        Are you sure? Because a certain level of ETCS is required to mix electrics with diesel freight. I’m a bit worried they won’t be up to the job when they try to transition.

        • Mike

          George D: “Because a certain level of ETCS is required to mix electrics with diesel freight”. No, electrics and diesels co-exist without ETCS in most of the world (and the rest of NZ’s electrified network). ETCS is about how trains are signalled, not about the type of train.

  • Wow! Everything will be electric by middle of next year? Even Pukekohe? 🙂

    jj

  • […] was going to do a post in follow-up to Transport Blog’s Why are the electric trains so slow? in light of Stuff’s article yesterday: New Auckland trains can’t speed […]

  • George D

    For goodness sake. If you’re running on mixed service this is inevitable.

    If you want to run electric only, then the chance to do that is on the Western Line, which is completely autonomous from Newmarket.

  • exaucklanderinsydney

    I don’t understand the spacing issue being raised. There’s only going to be 6tph per each line which is ample space. The only part that would need this potential upgrade would be between Newmarket & Britomart, but even that is around 14tph. Sydney (and many other places) doesn’t have this system and yet can manage 20TPH on some sections of line, so how do they do it and Auckland can’t with a better system?

    • Alphatron

      Most lines in Sydney are passenger only with freight running on separate lines. Also there are no level crossings in the Sydney metro area. Thus it is easier to run higher frequencies of uniform length and performance trains.

  • JimboJones

    Don’t mean to be pedantic Matt but I’m assuming we buy signalling systems, not bring them (bought not brought)

  • Pete

    Hmmmm a pattern is forming here

    First the existing payment card was not good enough (even though the card was basically the same tech as the new system)

    Now the existing train control system is supposedly not good enough (even though the total number of trains have not significantly changed, and the number of track sections have not changed)

    Someone is getting serious kick back on this lot is all I can assume

  • Anon (for obvious reasons)

    Be patient. This will get sorted out. But it may need some pressure brought to bear on certain people with restrictive ideas first.

    • Nik

      We just need to know where to apply the pressure.

      The public are starting to demand different solutions to the cars only model currently in operation and failing to deliver the required results.

      • Eric D

        “We just need to know where to apply the pressure.”

        Once you have them by the short and curlies, their hearts and minds will follow. The Western line is still stuck with the North Auckland line freight traffic. I found it a bit of a surprise when a trainload of timber hurtled through Newmarket, on my last visit. Because the freights are non-stop they should have no trouble keeping up with the speed of the EMUs while the EMUs are still doing all stops.

        • bbc

          Been in plenty of European main stations when freight trains hurtled through as well, so it’s not that surprising that similar things would happen at Newmarket. However, it is just a demonstration of the stupidity of selling off all that railway land for cheap apartments.

          • Sailor Boy

            Also been in Brisbane when a freight train went straight through local station with 40 trailers of coal.

  • TC

    I believe that the primary problem with the time performance has been highlighted by others in this post. ETCS puts too many over cautious speed restrictions on drivers particularly where level crossings and stations mix like TePapapa. This means amongst other things without changes to ETCS the western line is going to a nightmare for electric trains. I monitor trains daily and pretty much know that unless an electric train is at least 2 minutes early at Ellerslie it will be late getting into Onehunga unlike diesels that can even make up time on the branch with the right driver.

    On a positive note however I think the Onehunga line has been a great testing ground for ETCS and hopefully well before the western line becomes electric the bureaucratic process will have managed to make ETCS more practical.

    Also the diesel train argument is partial nonsense at least in terms of how it’s impacting the performance of the electrics on network at the moment. Onehunga trains frequently get clear runs between Britomart and Onehunga and will often be early at all stations until they are forced to crawl into Penrose and TePapa due to ETCS restrictions.

    • Yup, it’s not ‘mixed services’ it’s daft over cautious programming. And it surely can be changed. Someone has to make a decision here and get on with it and stop putting energy into excuse making and dissembling.

    • Errol Cavit

      Is the the level crossing on Victoria St, Onehunga being closed permanently? I didn’t get a chance to read all of the dot-matrix message on the temporary sign as I drove through earlier in the week.

    • Waspman

      Never a truer word was spoken TC. Its the electric trains holding the diesels up all because of that control system NOT the other way around as per the official line! They will only end up holding each other up once the diesels go if the don’t deal with the ETCS! Forget faster, forget higher frequency especially when something out of the ordinary occurs.

  • I believe the entry/exit speeds are being reviewed currently, but might take a while to reconfigure. And probably needs a whole review and re-submission of the Saftery Case vai NZTA.
    It would be interesting to understand who and why the decision was made to be so cautious with speeds around stations.
    My main gripe is that given that this approach was being applied, wouldn’t everyone have known what the impact would be for on-time running and performance. Promisingly I saw the Onehunga Line results lifted close to 90% from their low performance in May as everything was bedding in.
    So lessons learned for implementation of Manukau Line? Rectify station entry/exit times, model realistic timetable running time and understand the impact for on-time performance ahead of introduction. Seems prudent to keep the same timetable until a new one comes in in early 2015, but this had better have 5 minute improvements in running time with the speed control system all sorted.

  • Would be fine if drivers do not smoke Dope!
    Moving the limitations from 5-9kph up to the current 25kph for diesels does not seem like too much of a stretch.
    This would make a huge difference across 16 stations on the longer Southern & Western lines and maybe 4-6 mins for the shorter Onehunga & Manukau lines.
    It would be great to hear from AT about whether they are looking at this, and when a decision can be expected. Hiopefully before the Manukau Line opens with EMUs.

    • Chris Randal

      I find that offensive that you are accusing Auckland EMU drivers of smoking dope on the basis of one accident in Wellington which is more likely to be an adhesion problem.

      • sjc

        Agreed Chris. I find that very offensive, and over judgemental. I can assure you that the consumption of any substances that can lead to intoxification by any individual that operates rail equipment, in particular trains is not tolerated in anyway whatsoever.

        The problem with the electrification began long ago. When it was announced that AT would own the EMU’s and not KR, anyone with some insight can see the problems arising were big enough then. What does Auckland Transport really know about purchasing trains?

        • Well KR have covered themselves in glory with procurement recently haven’t they? Baby propellers anyone? Can we really have any confidence in the culture and quality of decisions at KR? From the outside it looks like a beaten-up and defeated organisation behaving with ‘stockholm syndrome’ in the face of a hostile government. With no idea how to think beyond tomorrow mornings freight movements.

          Also they seem far too quick to wave away rail reserve land in Auckland for road projects that will critically limit the already underway revival in both freight and passenger business in Auckland and beyond.

          Thank god a new organisation owns our passenger trains, it is unfortunate KR are still in control of their running though.

          So who wrote these absurd slow mandated speeds for the new trains? Why are they slower for the EMUs than for Diesels? What is being done about it?

          As it appears these restrictions are not due to physical laws or technical constraints but are the result of human decisions then why can they not simply be reviewed and amended? Is this happening? If not why not? Where is the communication?

          • sjc

            We could always put the freight on the road for you Patrick. I’m sure you would enjoy an extra 30,000 tonnes a day.

          • Or KR could press its case for investment like in the Third Main more vigorously and publicly instead of sitting back on it’s heals waiting for AT or someone else to fund infra solutions to their problems. I have challenged KR execs about this and they say ‘we’ll build anything you pay us to’. Who do they think they are? The old Dept of Railways? Too old fashioned or beaten up to get their elbows out and fight their corner is how it looks from the outside. And naively secretive too [nobody knows what we know]: That’s not how to succeed this century, SOE or not.

          • Mike

            PR: do you know that KR is not pressing its case with its owner? No board would challenge its owner in public (unless the directors don’t want to keep their jobs), let alone an SoE. Of course it “sit’s on its heals” publicly, because that’s what companies do when they’re following the policies of their owners; of course they build what they’re paid to do, because that’s their role, just like NZTA, Solid Energy, NZ Post, etc etc. Can you imagine any of them challenging their owners in public? No company “fights in its corner” against its own owners!

            I suggest directing you palpable (and justifiable) anger to its correct target!

        • Well the people who were running the procurement programme at Kiwirail were transferred to AT so if you think it was a procurement issue then it started at Kiwirail

    • Hidden.

      Actually the interim report makes it clear the brakes have been a long standing issue due to bad wheel slide. You are correct that no driver should be using drugs tho.

    • sjc

      “kiwirail conducted over 2000 drug & alcohol tests in the past twelve months, 1.2% were positive compared to the national average of 6-7%”
      Quote from another forum.
      I work for KR, I can assure you that either is not tolerated on the job whatsoever by management or even amongst comrades.

  • Sensitive souls – I was not accusing Akld drivers of smoking dope (not sure where you got that from?) – just jesting about the recent course of events in Wgtn. Relax, it’s Friday and rest easy that the Govt is spending time making plans for more roading (dear oh dear).

  • Eric D

    Given that the normal service braking for the EMUs was specified at 1m/sec/sec, then a six car set should be able to stop from 60kph in its own length. That is not emergency braking, just normal service braking which won’t see all the prams and cycles hurtling down the carriage.

    When the downtown development takes place, it should be possible to provide an overrun on at least some of the Britomart platforms to preventt any embarrassing buffer incidents, but I would have thought that a modern train control system would provide automatic smooth programmed braking to halt at a predetermined point.

    And do the trains not have anti-lock braking? It is the 21st century. Remember that the CRL northbound consists of a relatively steep downhill grade culminating in a tight 90 degree curve. The mind boggles at the sort of speed restriction that might be imposed. The braking issue is one that must be solved before the CRL can function.

    • Are there braking issues with the CAF EMUs? There has been with the Matangis….

    • Mike

      Eric D: what “embarrassing incidents” are you referring to? I’m not aware of any in Auckland, and the interim TAIC Melling report specifically recommends KR installs shock-absorbing stop blocks, as already exist at Britomart, Manukau and Onehunga, so it’s not clear why over-run tunnels are needed as a fourth line of defence, on top of the driver, ETCS and the stop blocks.

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