Airport RTN: a quick first step

AT have now put the SMART study documents on their site, here. There’s a lot to review there and this post is not a look at the whole report and its conclusions, but rather is a response to the problem of the length of time this project is likely to take whatever mode is selected.

All of the proposals in the report are capital intensive, without any currently identified funding source, and the timing of the RT route looks likely to be complicated by the Airport’s development plans, particularly those for the second runway, so there is a good case for looking at interim improvements for Airport/RTN interconnection while these bigger decisions are being resolved. I am focussing on the airport because of its fast growth is clearly a major generator of increased traffic congestion for the whole Mangere area.

First some background from the report. Just setting aside travellers for a moment, what about the workforce at and around the Airport, what are their current patterns?:

AIRPORT Commuter movements

So we can see in the above data from the 2013 census that the key connection for workers is east to Manukau area, followed by that to the centre. Furthermore that employee movement is still quite peaky, despite the airport itself obviously being a 24 hour operation:

Airport worker arrivals

 

So what opportunities are there for a quick and relatively low cost connection between the Airport and the current RTN, particularly with the above information in mind, that could be built while the full Mangere/Airport RT route is being developed, whatever the mode? RTN 2016 AirportThe first and obvious point is that there is already, right now, great service on the spine of the Southern Line relatively close to the Airport, particularly to the City Centre, but also south and across to Manukau City. Where the red and blue lines overlap there are services every five minutes at peak. So there seems to be a clear opportunity to improve connection east from the Airport for its own catchment while that also will connect, via the rail system, the City Centre and anyone who can access a train station.

Currently the connection between rail system and the Airport is very poor, as anyone -like me- who has used it will tell you.

New Network South

The 380 via Papatoetoe station is not a viable option because of three problems [the longer and slower route to Onehunga is even worse, as well leading to an equally low frequency train]:

  • Low frequency: 1/2 hourly service
  • Slow route; the 380 has no priority on its route so therefore is subject to both delay and unreliability caused by other traffic [I have been on this bus stuck in traffic for tens of minutes]
  • The Station/Bus physical connection at Papatoetoe does little to encourage the transfer.

So why not investigate a dedicated shuttle between the even closer Puhinui Station and the Airport on a minimum 10 minute frequency with dedicated lanes on Puhinui Rd and improved passenger interchange at the station, complete with lifts for people with luggage, and all weather cover? Puhinui is currently timetabled at 33-35 minutes from Britomart [this should improve with current work] with a train leaving every 5 mins at the peaks, exactly when traffic congestion is at is most disruptive. With bus lanes on Puhinui Rd the journey to the terminals would be a reliable 10 mins. Including an average wait time of 5 mins that’s a perfectly satisfactory 50 minute journey from Britomart to the Airport. Because this journey time is reliable and not subject to congestion and avoids the time and cost of parking at the Airport it should be competitive enough for a good proportion of travellers and workers. As shown below, there is space to build an interchange and turning space to the west [Airport] side of the station, this would need to be of interchange standard.

PUHINUI

The Puhinui Rd/20B road and bridge are due to be upgraded or duplicated soon in the on-going work to increase general traffic access to the Airport [what you feed grows] surely it would be wise to actually include dedicated transit lanes on a bridge in Auckland for once? This is a future RTN route, the route is flat and unconstrained by buildings; these are good practical and cost arguments for bringing this section forward. Shoulder lanes, or better, a dedicated busway and bridge, LRT ready, would be real ‘future-proofing’ [a phrase it is hard not to be cynical about in Auckland as it generally means doing less than nothing in practice].

With this service then it would be viable and essential to brand both the shuttle bus service at the terminals and the Southern and Eastern line services, both of which, with no changes to how they currently run, then become true Airport services.

Of course the transfer is less ideal than a system that takes you on one seat right into the Terminal either as a flyer or an employee there, however we know many travellers currently transfer from their cars to various bus shuttles in order to get cheaper parking, and surely many workers would be happy to not to have to battle increasing congestion with a reliable and cost effective alternative. In other words by optimising the bus connection we will further unlock the value of investments recently made in the rail system. It probably makes sense on those grounds alone.AIRPORT -Puninui

This should not be seen as instead of a north/south pan Mangere RTN, but it would surely make a good start, especially as this is the route for the future Botany-Manukau City-Airport RTN. So it would be even better if it continued to the new interchange at Manukau City, and then on to Botany and AMETI. And ensuring all hard infrastructure is built to be efficiently upgradeable to Light Rail in the longer term. Improving eastern connectivity is completely compatible with the northern Mangere routes discussed in the study, and indeed the current Airbus service, so arguably is an even more urgent direction to improve. There is no duplication in sorting this connection out first.

Botany Line

Incidentally this map clearly shows the other areas lacking RTN coverage: the Northwest and Upper Harbour, and the Isthmus and Mangere….

Which is exactly what AT have on their future RTN maps, but far too far into the future in my view. This is still based on last century’s thinking where every road is widened first, leading to the inevitable dysfunction and only then do we try to relieve this adding quality RT alternatives.

To summarise: we already have a high quality Rapid Transit service almost all the way to the airport, it seems to me that the addition of a high quality connection between these points would be a very useful first move in improving connectivity in this important area, especially if taken at least to Manukau City too, and as soon as possible.

HOP in detail

As mentioned this morning, at Auckland Transport’s board meeting today there is an interesting paper giving an overview of the HOP system, which AT say is the third largest financial transaction system in the country. Here are some of the figures from the paper.

  • AT have sold just over 965k HOP cards while they had only anticipated selling 338k over the same period – a case of AT underestimating demand? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done that with a public transport initiative. They say they typically sell about 23.5k per month but that has increased to 26k per month due to the SuperGold card conversion that took place recently. I also wonder how many are due to people who have bought more than one due to cards being blacklisted.

HOP cards sold

  • AT say that as of July, 86% of trips are made using HOP and that compares favourably with systems overseas which have taken much longer to get a similar level of use. Trains still have the highest level of HOP use with 87% of trips being on HOP compared to 85% on bus (note: the graph below is to June, HOP usage has increased since then primarily due to the SuperGold card conversion.

HOP cards usage

  • AT now have 74 ticket machines at train and busway stations plus one in the Manukau Mall. There are also 73 retailers and 10 customer service centres.
  • All up the project has cost just under $100 million. That’s certainly a lot of money (and  time) but nowhere near what the two biggest cities across the ditch have paid.

HOP system costs

  • In the 2015-16 financial year (to end of June), the HOP system processed over $193 million in revenue. That was up 10% on the previous financial year and up 26% on two years prior. The charts below show where that revenue comes from (AT just stop with using pie charts will you).

HOP cards Revenue breakdown

  • There is currently $11.8 million in the HOP account, 85% of which is from stored value on cards and the remaining representing monthly passes. There is also a noticeable trend in January with the values dropping, presumably as people used up their remaining balance before going on leave over summer.

HOP account balance

  • HOP costs $16.6 million to run every year which is well above the expected $9 million from the business case. The additional costs get a 57% subsidy from the NZTA. AT give the following list of reasons for why opex is higher than expected.
  • Additional bus services which increased the cost of system support
  • Increased AT HOP Operating Staff from the original budget of nine FTEs to 37, in order to support retailers, operators, and customers
  • BT test support to provide system testing of BAU changes and system enhancements (average of 40 route changes are made each month).
  • Additional finance support – providing reconciliations, settlement support and process development (recognition that the AT HOP System is a significant financial system).
  • Increased banking fees, secure cash collection and retail commission due to the high uptake of the AT HOP Card
  • Removal of the 25 cent transaction fee for Top-up transactions

Also included in the paper is one of the worst business diagrams you’ll see, I’m still not sure what ticking and clocks have to do with it. But still a lot better than this.

HOP horrible diagram

Now that integrated fares have finally been rolled out (and done so successfully), many will be interested to know what’s next for HOP. After all payment systems are undergoing rapid change right now. Here’s what AT say about it.

The development opportunity to improve customer service offerings is being actively pursued by the AT Metro, HOP and BT teams. This may include the ability to use credit cards or phone applications for payment and the potential to extend HOP to other services such as parking. Other options include online bus updates for balances, mobile top ups, use of the ATM network and account based systems. Whilst many of these are feasible to a degree, e.g. bus updates for balances is probably only available at 10-15 minute intervals, much of this technology is new, not only to Thales but other card systems as well. Generally, development is very slow and expensive which has limited the ability for AT to progress at pace these types of initiatives. Currently AT is investigating a solution to enable the HOP card to use Near Field Communications on a smart phone and the business is working with Thales on proposals for a real time top up ability via smart phone to the physical cards.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait years for some of these features which should almost be a minimum standard these days.

An improved design for the Tamaki/Ngapipi mess

My post yesterday about the hot mess that is the proposed Tamaki-Ngapipi intersection resulted in a lot of discussion, especially around the design and the role consultants play. Reader George who is also an engineer decided he could come up with a better design and posted it on twitter last night. He says that the design fits well within the proposed reclamation.

To me this is a vastly superior solution and one that caters for for all users. Compared to the official version:

  • People in vehicles appear to be no less inconvenienced, there are still exactly the same number of lanes.
  • For those on bikes, whether squeezed into lycra or just out for a cruise with the kids, it appears to be considerably safer and offers more options, such as only having one crossing to contend with to turn right onto Ngapipi
  • For those on foot also benefit, especially on the northern side where the cycleway is more defined and so less sharing is needed.

Perhaps the only thing that is needed is to ensure the cycleway on the northern side is wide enough for bi-directional movement for those who do use the current (sub-standard) shared path.

Tamaki-Ngapipi Concept - George

As a reminder, here is what AT propose

Tamaki-Ngapipi Intersection Consent Plan

I guess the focus of the resource consent AT are currently pursuing is the reclamation and as such I hope the actual design of the intersection can improve within that new wider footprint. Regardless it would be good to have a high quality design right from the get go.

So what do you say AT, how about going back to the drawing board and pursuing an idea like this as the base option.

July-2016 Patronage

We’ve been getting used to seeing some fairly strong patronage results over recent years, especially on the trains which have been seeing 20% year on year growth for a couple of years now – in large part thanks to electrification. But in July, at first glance the numbers appear to have hit a snag, with much lower growth on trains and negative results on buses.

Thankfully there is a valid reason for the results: the calendar. In fact, the calendar has played a significant role in July as there were two fewer weekdays compared to July last year and weekdays are where the PT system does its heavy lifting. Adjusting for that, we continue to see good growth on trains and ferries while buses scrape into the positive – more on that shortly.

2016-07 - Total Patronage

As we’ve come to expect, the Rapid Transit Network remains the star of the show with some significant growth, especially on the Northern Busway and the Western Line, both of which manged over 21% growth and that’s before adjusting for the fewer weekdays. The western line in particular was expected to do well given it the vast improvement in the number of services near the end of May. Overall trains fell only about 60k short of passing the next milestone of 17 million, something I’d be almost certain has happened in August already. Ferries also continue to tick along nicely and are likely to tip above 6 million trips before the end of 2016.

The big concern remains the buses other than those on the Northern Busway. Take the busway results out and even normalising for the fewer weekdays won’t help. AT say in their business report that there was also good growth on the Onewa Rd and Mt Eden Rd corridors – which is unsurprising as we continue to see almost daily reports of full buses leaving people behind, even in the middle of the day or late in the evening. But this suggests the results from other bus routes are even more dismal. AT say that the biggest issue is in South Auckland which will be the first area to get the new bus network rolled out and is due at the end of October.

2016-07 - Patronage Table

Another area I’ve been following closely in recent months has been farebox recovery. With the rapid passenger growth we’ve seen, the level of subsidy required has reduced. One aspect of this report that is different compared to previous months is that in the past farebox figures have been two months behind, but this July paper has the results up to the end of July. A few things caught my eye:

  • Train farebox stayed about the same as the previous few months which is good given the Western Line service increase at the end of May.
  • There has been a significant change in the ferry numbers

While not mentioned, I suspect the August results will be challenged due to the launch of simplified fares which were expected to reduce revenue.

2016-07 - Farebox

Other measurements like HOP are also working well but I’ll cover that off in a separate post.

 

Note: While July suffered from the fewer weekdays, it is August that will benefit from them with there being two more weekdays compared to August last year.

A Hot Mess on Tamaki

Auckland Transport have announced they’re installing some interim safety measures at one of the most dangerous intersections in the entire country, the notorious Tamaki Dr/Ngapipi Dr intersection. The changes are hoped to improve things until they can do a proper upgrade on it. The road also happens to be the busiest road in Auckland at least for cycling.

Cycle Sensors and Warnings

Road surface lights with sensors are just some of the traffic calming measures that have been installed at the corner of Tamaki Drive and Ngapipi Dr to improve safety for all road users.

The lights, one of the first times they’ve been used in Auckland, will illuminate to warn drivers that a cyclist is approaching.

In addition, the left turn from Ngapipi Dr into Tamaki Drive now has new road markings and a new recommended speed of 25km/h.

The traffic calming measures are an interim solution ahead of the overall intersection safety upgrade providing traffic signals at the intersection.

This project is expected to start towards the end of this year.

The interim solution will make it safer to cycle on Auckland’s busiest cycle route says Auckland Transport’s Cycling and Walking manager Kathryn King.

“We have a lot of people now choosing to cycle into the city for work and study. On this intersection, people cycling into the city end up in between two general traffic lanes and have to merge with traffic turning left into Tamaki Drive from Ngapipi Road, and these measures will make it safer,” she says.

Bike Auckland chair Barbara Cuthbert says it’s great to see this interim work for this important intersection.

“As well as slowing traffic, we hope the lights and new signage will remind drivers to look out for people on bikes and to merge with care,” she says.

While it is good to see AT putting in some interim improvements, they are really ambulance at the bottom of the cliff stuff. To see how bad the situation can be, this video from our friends at Bike Auckland is useful, their post on the interim changes is also good.

The last time we heard anything about a long term solution was late last year when AT confirmed the decision to put a signalised intersection in. The local board had been pushing for a roundabout (which would have been terrible for cyclists) but AT said their modelling showed it would have resulted in long queues as with a constant stream of traffic coming along Tamaki Dr in the mornings, users of Ngapipi would never have been able to get out. Both options would result in AT extending the seawall further out into the harbour.

So it’s a good time to ask what’s happening with the long term fix?

As it happens AT currently have a consent lodged with the council and open to submission to extend that seawall so they can upgrade the intersection. The issue though is that what’s proposed can best be described as a hot mess.

Essentially it looks like someone has designed it is trying to cater for two completely different types of cyclist, the casual person on a bike out for cruise and the high speed road warrior but to me what’s proposed does neither well, for example:

  • On the northern side we’ve got the existing cycleway continuing to mix with pedestrians – just with a bit more space.
  • We’ve got on-road cycleways for “confident” cyclists but on the Northern Side there are also ramps so those confident cyclists can bypass the lights and race through the pedestrian area if needed.
  • On the southern side we’ve got bike lanes that can only be reached after crossing two lanes of traffic.
  • There are bike advance boxes galore but also bike crossings.

Tamaki-Ngapipi Intersection Consent Plan

Instead it seems to me that they should just design one good and high quality facility that caters to all users, after all if they’re widening the seawall to the extent shown there is a heap of space available. Do it right and if Jacobs can’t do the job (which based on this they clearly can’t), then perhaps it’s time to get in some friendly Dutch or Danish designers/engineers who can*.

While also briefly digging through the consent documents I also came across this version of the design. It seems to suggest that one of the reasons for so much width is so that AT has future space should the wish to widen the road.

Tamaki-Ngapipi Intersection Consent Plan 2

* I’m sure there are many others who could also design this better.

The Rail Station Ranking Rug

Last week I posted the latest data from Auckland Transport for how many people used each rail and busway station in the last financial year. I’ve been keeping track of the rail station data for quite some time, including from the annual counts prior to HOP existing. One aspect I find interesting is to see how the use of stations changes in comparison to the other stations on the network.

Using the most recent data I’ve updated a table I put together ranking each station by the number of boardings they had. It’s called the rug as it kind of resembles an abstract pattern on a rug. For the purposes of this it only goes back to 2011 as prior to that the changes in rankings are much more common and it makes the chart harder to read.

The station order on the left of the chart represents where stations were at the first point and stations can be traced through to now to see how they’ve changed.

A few notable features that stand out to me.

  • The top four stations have held their position for about the last two years, although looking at the actual numbers this is likely to change in the next six months due to …
  • Panmure has rising strongly since the vastly upgraded station was opened at the beginning of 2015. As the new bus network comes on stream I expect this to move up to become the fourth busiest station.
  • Manukau has been the strongest mover and benefited greatly from the improvements in frequency that came with electrification. Again the new bus network and bus station which will be next to the train station is likely to push the station much higher in the rankings
  • Another big mover, also on the Eastern Line, has been Sylvia Park
  • Like the top stations, the bottom stations have also remained the same for some time. As we know Waitakere – which was open for 19 days in this data – has now closed and so will drop off the list next time it is updated. Westfield is scheduled to close when the New Network goes live in October but Te Mahia had a reprieve from AT

Station Rail Stations Ranked Jun 2016

Is there anything that stands out to you?

2016 Rail and Busway Station Boardings

The biggest driver of public transport ridership over the last year has been on the Rapid Transit Network (RTN), which consists of the busway and the rail network. Over the 2015-16 financial year both grew an astonishing 20.6% after each also grew by over 20% in the 2014-15 year. Trips on the RTN now make up over 25% of PT trips in Auckland, up from 10% a decade ago and that’s while usage of non RTN services has increased by 35% over that same time frame. The RTN has helped in showing that when relatively fast, frequent, reliable and high quality services are provided, that Aucklanders will flock to use them.

Auckland Transport have now kindly provided the the numbers breaking down both the busway and train results by station including where each

Before delving into it a few caveats.

  • The rail trips only count completed trips i.e. where both the origin and destination are known. This means trips where someone has forgotten to tag off, trips on some passes like the child monthly pass (a paper ticket) and special event trips aren’t included. The trips included below account for about 92% of all rail trips.
  • Where a train to train transfer takes place, such as at Newmarket, the transfer is included as a new boarding
  • The busway figures are slightly different and are based on trips that board or alight at a busway station. Outside of the busway, such as in the city, AT don’t show the exact stops where people board or alight but just group them into the general council area such as Waitemata and Gulf. As an example a trip from town to Albany busway station will show as boarding in the Waitemata and Gulf area and alighting at Albany station.
    • These aren’t busway stats, they’re results for the busway stations themselves. The results don’t show trips where people board and alight a bus outside of the busway where the bus travels on the busway for part of its journey e.g. someone who boards the 130 in Hobsonville and alights at Takapuna despite the bus travelling down the busway.
  • The busway results also include where a paper ticket is bought at a busway station but where the destination is unknown. Surprisingly that only accounts for about 7% of trips from busway stations.

As a result of the caveats above, I don’t think the rail and busway stations can be directly compared but seeing how they’ve changed over the year is valid.

This graph shows the change in boardings for each RTN station over the last year. The colours are based on the ones AT use with the grey, purple and orange depicting stations shared by multiple lines. I’ve also included the Waitemata area in the busway results as most of that will represent people catching a bus from town to a busway station.

  • As expected, Britomart easily dominates the results with 4.7 million people boarding a train from the station in the last year, up from 3.9 million the year before. In total 59% of all rail trips begin or end at this one station.
  • Some good growth too for Newmarket and for buses from the city too
  • Two stations actually saw usage drop, Pukekohe – which will almost certainly be attributed to the shift to shuttle services – and Sunnynook, for which I have no idea why usage has dropped.
  • Hibiscus Coast busway station only opened in about October last year so I haven’t included it here but impressively it now already it has about the same number of passenger trips as the Sunnynook station.

Station Boardings Growth 2016-2

The graph below looks at the how the usage of stations has changed as a percentage. Some observations:

  • Swanson has had great growth from its low base which I would assume is due to the opening of the new park & ride as well as the closing of Waitakere which will have seen a lot of users now drive to Swanson.
  • Manukau had the strongest growth and I expect that will only continue once the new bus network and particularly the new bus station open.
  • Puhinui is also improving well and even if you take the transfers out, it would still be up 28%

Station Boardings Percent Growth 2016-2

 

Below is a bit of a wall of number which are the basis for the graphs above for anyone interested. On separate tabs is also a matrix showing how many people travelled between each station should anyone want to make a visualisation of it. Or friend Aaron Schiff has in the past.

What do you think of the station usage results?

Update: Thanks to some comments I found I made a mistake with the Sunnynook and Smales Farm results for 2014-15. I’ve corrected that in the graphs and data set.

Behind the scenes on the electric trains

Looking at the AT website the other day I noticed that some previously confidential board papers had now been published. One of those was an update on our new trains, diving in to some of the technical issues they’ve faced.

PT RESOLUTION EMU_6484

They say there’s been a lot of positives from the project including that deliverables were met within the original time, cost plans and budget. They also point out some fairly impressive figures

The fleet has accumulated over 5 million service kilometres, conveyed more than 24 million passengers and operated in excess of 150,000 services.

As has been reported elsewhere, since the EMU introduction there has been an ongoing increase in ridership and annualised patronage is fast approaching 17 million. Growth is therefore ahead of all original estimates.

The reduction in carbon due to EMU operation has been significant with CO2 emissions reduced by 82%, or 25 kilotonnes CO2e, annually (even with an increase in services).

While the reliability of the new trains has been fairly high, as we know, the roll out of the EMUs hasn’t been completely plain sailing – something to be expected with brand new kit. The report highlights the key areas where there have been reliability issues.

  • ETCS – they say this is mainly caused by balise misreads (transmitters on the tracks that send the signal information to the train as it passes over them). Some of the worst balise hardware has been improved and some issues have been resolved by having the 6-car trains set up a specific way with the pantographs at opposite ends of the train. Most concerning though is the statement below:

ETCS presents an ongoing performance and obsolescence risk as Auckland has the largest install base of this system manufactured by Dimontronics, a Spanish company who were acquired by Siemens in 2014. Unfortunately it has proven to be extremely difficult to agree a long term support agreement with Siemens on realistic terms, who continue to work to extract themselves from their contractual obligations.

Consequently AT will need to maintain in-house ETCS system knowledge to ensure system operation, maintenance and support are managed correctly.

  • Doors – This is door equipment failure rather than the lengthy amount of time they take. AT say the number of door faults have reduced significantly “due to a combination of technical improvements and operator competency”
  • Energy meters – This relates to a couple of issues with the of the overhead electrical equipment and water, one was fixed fairly easily but the other required the French equipment maker only recently managed to replicate in their fog chamber. An interim solution has been implemented and a permanent one is being worked on.
  • Cab related equipment – AT say that overall the cabs have been well received by the drivers but there have been a few issues with the windscreen wipers and the air-con, which they say didn’t perform to specifications. Modifications have been made for both of these issues.
  • Voltage Stability – you may recall some issues after the eastern line went live, there turned out to be voltage issues on the network which they’ve improved but will still be an ongoing issue. They say that if one of the substations was to go out they can only run 48 EMUs or more specifically 96 traction converters (two per EMU). They say current mitigation in that situation would be to limit 6-car sets to 3 traction converters which would only result in slightly longer travel times if it occurred during the peak. A more permanent solution is being tested that will raise the number of EMUs at any one time to 65 which will definitely be needed should something happen post-CRL.
  • Power Harmonics – there had been some issues with harmonics and the Transpower network but these incidents are now less than 50% of original levels and within standards criteria.

 

Next the report gives a hint at some of the changes to come under the title of “Budgeted project extensions“.

Passenger Information – AT are currently trialling digital screens to provide passenger information to replace the need for posters. I managed to catch the train that has them once, unfortunately it was dark so the image quality wasn’t great.

EMU screen trial

  • DOO – AT are obviously thinking about driver only operation and looking at what will be required. They say at a minimum it means an additional display for the driver (to see doors I assume) and planning for this is underway.
  • Communications – AT want to upgrade the communications on the trains to enable things like having the CCTV cameras transmitted to the control room in real time. In addition, they want to have Wi-Fi enabled on the trains. This requires upgrading the systems with 4G gear as they only came with 3G and why it hasn’t happened already.

Lastly there are also a small list of improvements they want to make to the depot now that they’ve had time to get used to it, although it doesn’t sound like these are budgeted for yet. Changes are:

  • Post incident cleaning – AT say the current process is labour intensive and time consuming. At a minimum they say they need improved methods for moving the vehicles through the wash pit.
  • Roof cleaning – There is no current way to clean the roofs of the trains so they want overhead walkways built in the graffiti wash building to do that.
  • Inventory Storage – they want a small add on to the depot to help store all of the spare parts to free up space within the depot.
  • Vandalism – Damages to seats, windows, external body panels and graffiti is costing AT in excess of $500k per year. They say new paint and repair techniques are being trialled to reduce the cost.

At the time of writing the report, AT said 47 trains had achieved final acceptance under the supply contract terms with the remaining 10 due to be completed by October. The completion is based on reacting a set level of uninterrupted service kilometres.

 

The HOP Blacklist

Auckland Transport’s HOP card generally works pretty well for most people and is a vast improvement from what we had before with different ticketing systems for each mode/company. But almost 5 years on, it still has some amazingly annoying and very customer unfriendly bugs/features that they’ve never fixed. One of the chief among these what happens when an auto top-up fails due to a credit card expiring. The issue goes like this:

  1. Person sets up for their HOP card to be automatically topped up by a chosen amount from their credit card every time the HOP card drops below a pre-set balance. A great feature when it works.
  2. When the credit card expires – unlike most companies which a) stop attempting additional payments and b) contact the customer to get them to update the credit card details – AT keep on trying to charge the existing card. After failing a three times, AT then block the HOP card. The customer is blissfully unaware the payment has failed as the system will have already put money on the HOP card, until it is blocked.
  3. The customer then has to shell out $10 for a new card and in many cases loses whatever credit was left on their HOP card.

To make matters even worse, it appears that the original card and ‘stolen’ balance still show up when people log on.

Thanks to an OIA from one person affected, the herald have now revealed just how much this has happened.

More than 12,000 people have had their AT Hop cards blacklisted because their automatic top-ups failed.

And Auckland Transport is now reviewing its processes around how it notifies customers that their card is about to be blocked.

Yve Bourke was left stranded in July when her card was blacklisted and depended on the kindness of a stranger to pay her bus fare because Auckland Transport hadn’t told her that her card had been blocked.

“I went to get on the bus one morning and it declined and I thought, ‘That can’t be right’ so I tried a few more times and the bus driver told me I had to get off the bus.

“Luckily some lovely man paid for me who said to me, ‘You should check your credit card if you’ve got an auto top-up because mine expired mine last month and I got blacklisted.”

That turned out to be almost exactly what happened Bourke.

While I haven’t had it happen to me, I know it is incredibly annoying and embarrassing to find your card not working. I had it recently when an online top-up was delayed despite being before AT’s 10pm cutoff. This particular customer seems quite lucky that AT both transferred her balance and refunded her the cost of a new card. Most others I’ve heard this happened to aren’t so lucky.

So infuriated with the process, Bourke fired off an Official Information Act request to find out how many others had gone through the same ordeal.

Since their roll-out in June 2013, 12,124 people have had their cards blocked because of top-up failures totalling more than $330,000 in remaining value – however this figure includes the amount of the automatic top-ups even if the payment didn’t go through or whether the customer transferred the value to another Hop card.

Auckland Transport was not able to provide the actual amount of customers’ prepaid credit which it’s seized.

HOP actually first rolled out to trains at the end of 2012 but I’m guessing June 2013 is the date that AT pulled the data from. Based on that, it works out at AT blacklist an average of almost 11 cards every single day, that is huge. If it caused say 5% of those people to stop using public transport, that could equate to 300,000 trips a year.

Given the numbers this has happened to and the comments here and on social media we’ve regularly seen over the years, AT’s explanation that it they notify customers appears to be complete BS.

Spokesman Mark Hannan said three attempts were made to complete Bourke’s automatic top-up and admitted a trigger email wasn’t sent because there were two email addresses attached to her account and there “was some confusion”.

Usually, a customer would be notified of the problem twice before the card is blocked.

The agency is working on an AT Hop website improvement project which includes reviewing the notification process to “improve both the content of the email notification, and the subject, to make it clearer for customers”.

 

As mentioned this is only one of the many annoying quirks of HOP that exist and which have never been fixed. Some others include, but not limited to:

  • If you top up online but don’t tag on within 60 days the money disappears into a void.
  • Tagging on, then topping up as your balance is low, then tagging off can charge a penalty fare.
  • They still advise it can take up to 3 days for an online top up to occur – even only updating daily was archaic four years ago.

HOP Top Up Delay

I was aware the upgrade to Simplified Fares (this Sunday) involves some significant software upgrades to the HOP system. As such and not long before the fares were announced I asked Auckland Transport if the upgrade would also address some of these frustrations. The only answer I got was that they wouldn’t comment on it.

If improvements aren’t coming as part of the changes this weekend, then AT need to get on with it and with some urgency.

LRT: The Seattle example

Auckland Transport have published a new version of their airport rail video, essentially stripping out the heavy rail parts while also adding a little bit more detail about the airport.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects is it shows a bit of how light rail would get through Onehunga. It appears the plan is to elevate the light rail line over Neilson St right where AT are about to remove the bridge that lifts the road over the rail corridor.

Airport Light Rail Video - Onehunga

Every time rail to the airport is discussed, here or in other places, there are a number of people who question AT’s decision to use Light Rail to connect to the airport. The biggest complaints/misconceptions I’ve seen against the idea of using light rail to the airport are:

  • Light rail is slower – especially on Dominion Rd with lots of stops
  • That it will be like Melbourne mixed traffic
  • Light rail doesn’t have enough capacity
  • It will mix with trips on Dominion Rd
  • It’s light and so heavy must equal bigger and better

So let’s step through some of these and to do so, I’m going to use Seattle as an example. The reason for using Seattle is that its Link Light Rail has many characteristics that appear to be almost identical to what Auckland Transport is proposing.

First a little bit about the system.Seattle Link Light Rail Map

Seattle has only recently started building its light rail system and the first section opened in July 2009. Since then there have been a couple of extensions, to the airport in the south (six months later) and just in March this year, a 5km, 2 station extension to the north. Further extensions in each direction are already under construction with other lines and extensions planned.

As of now the entire light rail system is just over 30km in length which is almost identical to the distance between Papakura and Britomart. It does have fewer stations though and outside of the city, much wider station spacing. The route is a mix of grade separated right of way with a mix of tunnels and bridges, median running and in the city centre it shares one tunnel with buses. Below is an image from Streetview showing Martin Luther King Jr Way which a 6.2km long section of median running and is similar to what we can expect along Dominion Rd. As you can see it is not mixed with traffic and the rail is separated from the road by a small kerb. Access across the tracks at intersections is controlled by lights.

Seattle Link Light Rail Martin Luther King Jr Way 2

 

 

Speed

The light rail vehicles used in Seattle are capable of speeds up to 105km/h which at maximum is only 5km slower than our heavy rail trains are capable of, and which ours don’t often get close to achieving in normal service. Seattle has some fairly lengthy sections which over which I imagine it is able to make the most of it’s speed. That means it only takes about 44 minutes to travel the 30km for an impressive average speed of just over 40km/h. That is about the same average speed as the Eastern line from Manukau but considerably faster on average than the Southern, Onehunga and Western lines, the latter two average less than 30km.h.

Even if you exclude the section from the Airport to Rainier Beach and from Westlake to the University of Washington, the system achieves similar average speeds to our network.

Seattle Link Light Rail Travel Times

Obviously our existing trains need to be faster but that is a discussion for a separate post. What is clear is that at the very least, it is possible to get light rail up to a similar speed as what we’re achieving now with our rail network.

To achieve the times Auckland Transport claim, LRT would only have to average 30km per hour, the same as being achieved on the Rainier Beach to Westlake section. With AT planning to create a corridor like shown above (but with a single traffic lane instead of two), that should be possible. There’ll be no light rail mixing with cars and also no stopping ever few hundred metres like many buses and many traditional tram networks such as Melbourne do.

Capacity

 

It’s all very well saying that heavy rail has more capacity but just because you can build a rail line capable of running trains with a capacity for 1,000 people every 90 seconds, it doesn’t mean you should. It is very expensive both to build and run so most cities only do it if they absolutely need to. Better to build enough capacity for what you’re going to need (plus a bit of redundancy).

As we know, AT are planning on using up to 66m long light rail vehicles (two 33m coupled together) that can carry up to 450 people running every 5 minutes. Looking over at Seattle, they have 29m long vehicles that can carry around 200 people running at up to every 6 minutes in the peak. They too can couple vehicles together and until recently were limited to joining two trains together but their system allows for up to four to be coupled. Four vehicles connected together would be around 116m long and carry up to 800 people – more than one of our 6-car trains are designed to carry (ours carry 750 people). Given the technology is obviously already available, there doesn’t seem to be a technical reason why we eventually couldn’t see longer light rail trains here – assuming we designed for the possibility.

Seattle Link Light Rail - Int Dist Station

Another way of looking at capacity to see how it’s performing. Sound Transit who run the system publish ridership data monthly. The opening of the extension to the University of Washington in March has seen ridership soar at up to a staggering 83% compared to the same month a year prior. That means over the last few months, this single LRT line is carrying more than Auckland’s entire rail network combined. The results suggest that by the time the extension has been operative for a year that their system will be carrying 20 million+ trips a year. Seattle’s weekday numbers are about the same as what we have but they do much better on weekends, something we’ll hopefully see the new network improve.

Seattle Link Light Rail Ridership 2016-06

 

On both speed and capacity, the example for Seattle shows that Light Rail can be every bit as good as our current heavy rail system. For me the key is not the name of the mode but how it’s designed. The pressure that needs to be applied to Auckland Transport, the council and the government is to provide the funding needed as soon as possible and to ensure that it’s implemented to the level advertised in the video above (or better). Light or heavy, it’s still rail to the airport.