Increasing capacity on our trains

Ridership on Auckland’s trains has experienced fantastic growth over the last few years, increasingly a staggering 70% in just three years to 17.3 million trips as of the end of September. The positive thing is that the growth remains strong at nearly 20% per annum. Growth has been so impressive that it is ahead of what was projected to occur with electrification, despite the electric trains not coming into service around two years later than expected in the business case.


The good news is the forecast for the future looks bright. The new bus network that’s just been rolled out in South Auckland and over the next 18 months will be rolled out to the rest of the urban area. That, combined with the recently implemented Simplified Fares will likely see a lot of people transferring to trains as part of their journey and should continue to help drive ridership over the next few years. No one knows just what the maximum capacity of the rail network will be prior to the City Rail Link but previous modelling has suggested somewhere in the 20-25 million range.

But there are definitely some clouds on the horizon in the form of capacity constraints. Already we get reports of services at, or close to capacity during peak times and as patronage rises that will only get worse.

Packed Train

How will trains cope with another 5 million+ trips a year on them?


Ultimately we need more trains, both to increase the length of our existing trains so more run as six-car sets and to run more services. But there are two main issues with this.

  • Even if Auckland Transport placed an order for more trains today, it will take at least two years before we see them on the tracks and carrying passengers. Based on current trends we don’t have that long.
  • To run additional services it requires the completion of the City Rail Link (and other associated infrastructure like signalling improvements). That isn’t expected to be finished until 2022/23 and until that happens, peak frequencies can’t change from what they are now. Note: Because the CRL makes services more efficient, AT have said in the past they think they have enough trains to run services once the CRL opens. They’re absolutely kidding themselves if they think that’s true.

So here are a couple of thoughts on what we can do to address this and ensure there is still enough capacity to enable ridership to grow.

Speed up the trains we have

Our trains are so stupidly slow it feels George R.R. Martin writes books faster. The sad fact is that right now, the timetable with brand new electric trains is slower than it was with the clunky old diesels. Through a combination of archaic operating process and poor technology they are often both slow between stops, especially approaching stations, and have incredibly long dwell times at stations. My perception on some of this may be clouded by being on the Western Line which often has a level crossing right next to the station.

We know that over the last year or two, numerous signalling, track and train improvements have been made to enable faster, more reliable services but so far those improvements haven’t been reflected in the timetable and sometimes feels like services are being kept slow just to avoid getting ahead of schedule.

The good news is that some improvements are coming. AT say a new timetable is due in March which should finally capitalise on the improvements mentioned above. The benefit of that is it will free up a few more three-car trains to allow more to run as six-car ones. Here’s what AT say about journey times with the new timetables:

Run times on the Southern and Eastern Lines with electric trains will be shorter than previous pre-electronic train control system (ETCS) signalling with diesel trains, with equivalent times on the Western Line due to large number of rail level and pedestrian crossings and speed limits at these crossings.

But nothing appears to be being done about the dwell times which can often exceeding 50 seconds even for minor stops. This was a video I shot while in Tokyo of one of the metro lines showing a dwell time of just 20 seconds from the time we stopped till we were underway again. Admittedly not all trains were this fast but this is what AT should be aiming for.

One process used in Japan that we could fairly easily adopt is to have the train manager in the rear driving cab of train checking the doors/platform are clear rather than the process we have of the TM closing all but one door, checking they’re closed then closing his door before the train can leave. At stations on curves giving poor visibility, screens linked to CCTV cameras can assist TM and we already have this at a couple of stations, such as Fruitvale Rd station. Even a few seconds saved at each station can add up significantly.

Saving time not only frees up more trains to boost capacity but also helps make trains more attractive in general.

Order more trains now

This one seems kind of obvious but given the two-year lead time for trains, it’s essential we order more as soon as possible. We know there’s already been talk within AT about the need for this and it also appears they’re also looking at tying it in with decisions around how to deal with Pukekohe. One solution talked about is buying up to about 10 battery powered trains to enable electric services to be extended without the high cost of extending the wires. That in turn would free up some units to allow more services to run as six-car trains. The key issue though is funding and who pays for it as these trains don’t come cheap. Each train costs something like $10 million to build so we’d probably need at least $100 million now and more after the CRL.

Spread the peak

Currently AT consider the peak to be 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm but even within those times there is a ‘peak of the peak’ and it is at those times where capacity is most constrained. AT should be looking at how they can encourage more people to travel at different times, both for addressing capacity constraints but also for attracting more people to use services. The first step will be to improve off peak services so they run at a minimum of every 15 minutes all day but AT’s own statutorily required Regional Public Transport Plan calls for even better with services at a minimum of every 10 minutes on the three major lines.

RPTP rail frequencies

We’re hoping the previously mentioned March timetable change will see improvement on this matter.

Another important thing they could do to encourage off peak travel would be to implement off peak fares, offering a discount for travelling at times when the network isn’t as busy. Of course, not everyone can shift when travel but some can and the added benefit of this is it could attract more people to use PT.

Reconfigure the trains we have

Of all the options at AT’s disposal, perhaps the fastest, cheapest and easiest might be to reconfigure the trains. Our trains are currently configured to focus on longer distance trips by squeezing as many seats in them as possible. Each three-car train has around 230 seats and of which just over 2/3rds are set to face forwards of backwards with the remaining, including the low floor section of the middle car, set up as metro style sideways seating. The trains are also said to carry 143 people standing although at a squeeze I’m sure they’ve carried more.

There’s a good reason so many PT systems use sideways seating and that’s because it enables a lot more people to fit in each vehicle and while I was in Japan I noticed even most medium distance trains travelling further than Pukekohe were configured exclusively this way. It also doesn’t lose all that many seats because sideways seating takes up some of the space otherwise needed for leg room. As a comparison, the low floor section of the middle car has 16 seats on each side, although half of them can fold up to enable bikes, prams or wheelchairs to more easily fit in, while the centre section of the two end cars has 20 seats per side.

Initially converting just the centre sections of two end cars in each train would lose just 16 seats from a train but gain a huge amount of additional space for people to stand. I also understand the seats are designed to be easily changed. If you catch a train you may notice the current directional seating is cantilevered off the walls. This means there’s are no poles to move or marks to be left on the floor and changing the seats is simply a case of changing a bracket to turn the seats around. It would probably also have the added advantage of stopping vandals from scratching the backs of seats. If needed, we could do the same with the rest of the seats on the trains.

EMU Interior June 2

This is an old image, the trains have vertical poles between each pair of seats for those standing to hold

I realise not everyone likes the sideways seats but I’m sure most would rather be able to get on a train them be so busy they’re forced to wait for the next one. We should probably consider doing this on some buses too, the red Citylink would be a prime candidate.


Guest Post: March Madness Marches On

This is a guest post from reader Stephen Davis and was originally posted here.

Regular readers of TransportBlog will be familiar with March Madness. With workers, students and kids all trying to use public transport simultaneously, it’s the busiest month of the year. In rush hour, trips can take an hour longer. People stand helplessly at bus stops as bus after bus sails by packed to the gunwales, with their headsigns proclaiming “BUS FULL”.

Once you do get on the bus, scenes like this are fairly common. The “no standing” line is completely ignored, and it’s your turn to watch from inside as your bus now leaves other people behind.

Now, Auckland Transport treat this as a temporary, transient thing. It’s a problem for a few weeks, but we can’t afford to run enough buses to solve the problem when we’d only use them for a few weeks of the year. To quote an AT spokesman, “The numbers travelling on buses and trains does increase but settles back again as students work out their schedules. The best advice is to plan ahead and try to travel outside peak times.”

Now you can debate whether that attitude is justified. Our friends at Generation Zero compiled a rather nice report on the issues people reported, and it’s been ignored by Auckland Transport. But at least it’s over now, and those of us who haven’t given up on public transport entirely can at least get on our buses.

Except for one thing: these pictures aren’t from March. They’re not even from peak time. All of them were taken between May and July, this year, after 10am and before 4:30pm.

Welcome to New North Road.

I live in Kingsland, and study at the University of Auckland. I head in and out at all times, peak, interpeak, and evening. So this gives me a good chance to see how the buses are getting used, all day. There’s a lot of students, but the crowds aren’t just timed on the hour as people try to get to lectures. There’s also lots of non-students on the buses, too – judging by the number of beeps on their Hop cards.

The last week is typical. I’ve travelled in during the peak once, and interpeak four times. Of those four, twice I was left behind by a full bus, with the next at least ten minutes behind. Three of the four times it was standing room only. Twice the standing room was in front of the line saying “no standing in front of this line”. And this is at Kingsland, not even the end of the run – so as we go through Eden Terrace, those buses are no longer picking anyone up.

On a personal level, it doesn’t matter too much being a little late. I aim to get in well before lectures so that I’ve got time to do some work. I’m also young and not travelling too far, so standing doesn’t bother me.

But none of this is helping anyone else. Auckland is trying to grow public transport use, but in order to do so it needs to actually have some capacity for growth. We’re also trying to improve the reputation of public transport, and this sort of unreliability isn’t going to convince new people to try it.

So why is the crowding so bad? Have a look at the frequency of buses between Saint Lukes and the city. The hours are the times they arrive at Victoria Park at the end of their routes.

The frequencies are fairly high in the peak from 8-9, naturally, and are still high as late as 11am. But during the middle of the day they drop as low as 3-4 buses per hour. All that needs doing is to extend the frequency of buses throughout the day to be closer to the level during peak: 6 buses per hour or more. That’s what we run on Dominion Road, and less than what runs on Mount Eden Road. Some of the services can also keep running as expresses during the day, for example the 224 which starts all the way in Henderson. If it’s not going to stop in Kingsland anyway, it might as well be called an express.

You can also see that we need to extend bus lane hours and lengths. The few bus lanes along the route end at 9am – but the second-busiest hour, by the number of buses, is 9-10am.

The most infuriating part is that overcrowding off-peak is actually a good problem to have and a relatively easy one to solve. Full buses make money. Adding a new bus is expensive, but we already have them – there’s extra buses running during the peak hours, so all that’s needed is to run them at higher frequency a little longer. That’s good for business. It’s good for drivers, who can avoid split shifts or short shifts. And it’s good for passengers, current and potential.

Increasing frequency off-peak also helps with peak crowding. If the service is more attractive, more people will try to move their travel to avoid the peak.

Solving the overcrowding during the peak and in March is harder. There’s issues with the buses bunching once they get too frequent, for example. It’s going to take double decker buses, more frequency, more bus lanes, and maybe even light rail. But crowding in the interpeak? We could fix that right now, and it’ll make money, not cost money.

Northern Busway Success

The Northern Busway has been one of Auckland’s biggest success stories. Opened in February 2008 it’s helped transform transport on the North Shore with perhaps the most stunning statistic being this quote from a NZTA report on extending the busway to Albany and Silverdale – something that government cut from the package of works to widen the Northern Motorway.

Over the past few years investment in the Northern Busway, and efforts to improve bus and transit lanes in other parts of the North Shore, have resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of trips made by bus. Not only has the number of bus users across the Harbour Bridge improved significantly during this time, but there has been a decline in the number of cars crossing the bridge: freeing up space so everyone’s trip is faster and more reliable.

Recent figures indicate that almost 12,000 out of the 29,000 people crossing the bridge in the morning peak period are now travelling by bus (i.e. almost 41 percent of all people use the bus). This figure represents a significant increase in bus mode split compared to 2004 (which had roughly 5,000 out of 27,000 (18.5 percent)) of people crossing the bridge at peak times by bus.

The primary service that uses the busway is the Northern Express (NEX) who’s growth has been a direct result of the congestion free route the busway provides – although it uses the busway for just 41% of its journey. As of September over 2.5 million trips were taken on the NEX over the previous 12 months which us up from about 700,000 before the busway opened (NEX services started in late 2005 as a precursor to the busway).

14 - Sep NEX Patronage

The NEX is only one of a number of services that use the busway for some or all of their journey and many more people benefit from the infrastructure. With HOP it’s made it even easier to catch non NEX services that use the busway e.g. the 881. We don’t know the actual number of people using the busway however I’ve heard estimates that it’s in the range of 5-8 million trips a year. Another important feature of the busway is that buses using it travel at about twice the average speed of buses elsewhere in Auckland. That means the same number of buses and staff can run more services for no extra cost compared to other routes making them much more efficient. Because of all of the positive aspects mentioned we’ve also heard that services run at or close to full cost recovery so little or no subsidy is needed for them. In other words it’s a success on many measures.

NEX buses run every 3 minutes in the peak direction while counter peak – away from the city in the morning and towards the city in the evening – and off peak during the day they run every 10 minutes.

NEX Timetable

As many know I work in Takapuna and normally commute using PT. Recently instead of catching a bus direct to Takapuna I’ve taken to catching the NEX to the Akoranga station and walking from there (15-20 mins) as part of increasing the amount of walking I do. In addition due to the timing of the direct buses and transfers it often works out not much longer to get to work. It means I’m travelling counter peak and one thing that’s surprised me, as it does with buses direct to Takapuna, has been just how busy they are. In the case of the NEX this is particularly surprising considering just how poor the land use is around the busway stations.

This image was taken a few days ago while heading over the bridge in the morning with the bus full of people both sitting and standing. This is now a common sight at many times of the day in both directions.

Full NEX

The mornings are often busy however the afternoons have been seen buses packed, often to the point that people at Akoranga are missing out and having to wait for another 10 minutes for the next bus. While it is a sign of the popularity of the service it leaves those having to wait angry and frustrated. Those who get on and are standing on the bus don’t feel that much better either due to how packed it is. In addition buses extremely packed quickly fall behind schedule as they have to dwell at stops for a lot longer which can have knock on effects for future services. To make matters worse, those waiting on the platform for a bus will often see 2 -3 NEX buses plus up to half a dozen non NEX buses race past towards the city not in service so they can ferry people from the city back to the shore.

After this happened a few times and no response from Auckland Transport on social media about it (although they have been better lately), I went to AT directly about the issue. They pulled the data for the stop in the direction I was travelling for October and provided this graph which shows that around 5pm in particular many of the services are very very full.

NEX counter peak afternoons Oct 14

As a result they are now working with Ritchies to put on an additional service which they say will likely be at 5:05 to help cater for the demand. They will also closely monitor some of the other service s that look quite full such as the 4:30pm service.

This is a good outcome and should hopefully really help address some of the issues although I would have thought a 4:55 might be useful too. I think ideally AT should be looking to move to 5 minute frequencies in the afternoon peak which shouldn’t be too difficult seeing as the buses are having to get to the CBD anyway. In addition this information was only pulled because I highlighted it, I hope to see AT getting to the point that services are regularly full are automatically highlighted to them so these issues can be addressed sooner.

Big solutions are not always best

This great video from Santiago shows that when dealing with issues the best solution doesn’t always have to be something massive and expensive but that sometimes quick, cheap and often counter-intuitive solutions can solve the problem.

It’s pretty impressive that blocking people a single gate on one platform (along with a person to operate it) can improve the passenger capacity of a station by 15% and enable increased train frequencies. At least in the near term, the place where we might needs to start getting serious how we move people on PT will on the buses. Perhaps a flow system where passengers embark by the front door and alight only by the back door might be required and it was one of the things suggested by a few different people in our recent ideas competition.

My guess the biggest barrier too many of these types of solutions is not always so much a technical one but political/public perception one.