On Monday July 20 – less than a month away – for the first time all services on Auckland’s rail network¹ will be fully electric as the roll-out of EMUs reaches its next milestone. Having all trains being electric should at least remove the issue of increasingly unreliable diesel trains from the network however it will also present it’s own problems. One of the biggest of these is travel times.
One of the most absurd situations we find ourselves in is that despite the new trains capable of much faster acceleration, deceleration and top speeds, they’ve actually been slower than the lumbering diesel trains they’re replacing. There appear are a couple of key causes for this.
- Long dwell times at stations
- An overly restrictive signalling system – particularly around level crossings
Both of these issues have a greater impact on the Western Line than the rest of the network as the frequent level crossings and closely spaced stations combine to prevent the EMUs from using their speed advantages to make up much time. Things are bad enough that at the end of March AT added three minutes to western line timetables
so the stats didn’t look as bad to more accurately represent what customers can expect. I wanted to see just how bad the dwell times are and so over the last few weeks I’ve managed to have a few EMU journeys on the Western Line so I’ve taken the opportunity to conduct some tests.
Firstly here are some points worth noting about my testing.
- The times are only for stations between Henderson and Grafton and a couple of trips on an EMU were only to Kingsland.
- I took the time from as soon as I saw and felt the train stop to the time it started moving again.
- Some trips were on a weekend when trains aren’t as busy. This is useful as it gives a more baseline comparison that isn’t affected by high passenger loads
So how do they compare?
The performance of electric trains seems to vary quite a bit. On a weekday morning the train averaged just over 1 minute per stop with the longest being at New Lynn. Things were a little better on weekends with an average of around 50 seconds per stop. No matter what way you look at it those are crazy numbers and there’s no way it should take that long compared to how international systems perform – or even compared to the diesel trains. Even on busy morning the trains the diesels averaged around 40 seconds per stop, considerably quicker than their electric counterparts – providing they weren’t overloaded.
So what’s changed to increase dwell times so much. As part of recording the times I hadn’t intended to do so but I started noticing some trends around how long things took. A rough example of what I saw is below using some of the faster times I witnessed.
Straight away you can probably see a few notable things going on.
- With the diesels a good train manager will have the doors opening almost immediately as soon as the train stops and within 1-2 seconds passengers will be boarding the train. With the EMU’s there’s a 2-3 second delay before the button even lights up to allow the door to be opened. .
- Once a door button is pushed it also takes longer for the doors to open and close, this is especially the case for the middle trailer carriage which has to wait for the little platform to extend. .
- Another quirk is that some TM’s will signal to the driver as their door is halfway closed. It seems with the EMU’s this may not be possible and that they may have to wait for the doors to be closed before alerting the driver. .
- With the diesels the driver is free to leave as soon as the signal is given to depart – although there is usually a slight lag as the engine powers up. With the electrics there is a long till the EMU can move. I’ve been told by staff the onboard systems have a minimum 5 second delay before the traction system will engage.
As you can see it appears a lot of the issues are primarily technical ones with the design of the trains themselves, the five second delay before the train can leave is particularly absurd.
With the roll-out of EMUs across the entire network almost complete AT, CAF and Transdev need to turn their attention to addressing these issues with urgency. This is because dwell times can have a huge impact on on-time performance. At say 16 seconds per station that equates to an extra four minutes per journey.
While a lot of the issues are technical I think some potential quick solutions could be implemented by changing how staff manage trains. One is to start encouraging faster boarding/alighting by leaving the doors open for a shorter period of time. Currently people can be quite pedestrian in getting on/off trains and TM’s don’t like to hurry people up.
Another potential solution is to shift the TMs out of the trains themselves and have them stationed in the rear cab of the train. This is quite common on many overseas systems. They could then close all the doors at once while checking out the cab door. This would save the time of them closing their door separately while still allowing them to check the doors are clear. This would mean they aren’t roaming the carriages but considering they don’t ever do anything to provide customer service anyway then it’s no great loss i.e. most won’t even ask someone to take feet off seats or turn loud music down.
These two measures along could easily shave up to 10 seconds off dwell times.
In addition to dwell times I also particularly noticed the issue around signals. This is especially the case when there is a level crossing next to a station – like there are in at so many stations on the Western Line.
Without getting too technical, signals are red if the barriers are up to stop trains from going through the crossing. To not inconvenience cars too much in case drivers get impatient and go around barriers, they aren’t set to close till the train is on the platform. The issue is that because the signal is red the new train control system means trains can’t approach a red signal at speed. As a result when there’s a level crossing next to a station trains have to basically crawl up to it – again making trains slower than they need to be. This isn’t an issue with the diesel trains.
The ultimate solution is that we need to get these level crossings removed either by closing roads or grade separating them. In the short term perhaps other solutions need to be investigated such as closing the barriers sooner and having booms that cover the entire crossing rather than just half the crossing like they do now.
Regardless of the solutions, all those involved in the rail system need to work on solutions to speeding up these new trains with urgency.
¹ with the exception of Papakura to Pukekohe