Improving EMU Travel Times – LGOIMA

Back in January I made a request to Auckland Transport asking what had been done/planned to improve travel times on the rail network, the response I received was very positive and if able to be implemented fantastic for rail users. You can view the entire response here.

The highlight is the section on dwell times, which remarked that CAF have been hard at work testing different options to reduce the dwell times with one option possibly allowing 20 second dwells. Whether this option is feasible outside the depot however is to be seen.

CAF have recently undertaken timed tests in the depot for different opening and closing options – for the time from wheel stop till power is back onto the traction motors. It can be achieved in 20 seconds, plus the actual door open time depending on the open and close method. A modification has been implemented that has further reduced the time required to make the traction loop by 2 seconds – which is a good improvement to bank.

AT also asked KiwiRail and Siemens (signalling company) to look at improving network travel times by optimising the ETCS (European Train Control System) signalling to allow increased line speed. The sections reviewed looked to be centred around the Westfield – Newmarket – Britomart section of network. As someone who uses the Southern Line I can understand this with line speeds feeling very slow considering the track alignment, zero level crossings & geometry. In a section where next the southern motorway you feel you should be putting the pedal down leaving traffic in the dust, instead you find yourself limping along.

Full Speed Ahead

The areas AT believe line speed can be increased are (up – towards north, down – towards south)

  • #3a: Line Speed Increase NAL South (Westfield Junction to Newmarket) – (saves 10 sec Up, 15sec Down)
  • #3b: Line Speed Increase OBL South (Westfield Junction to Newmarket) – (saves 15 sec Both)
  • #3c: Line Speed Increase NBL (Newmarket to Britomart) – (saves 20sec Both. But addition of Parnell station will negate.)
  • #8: Sarawia St in-fill balise (Reduction in delays approaching 203 signal) – (saves 10 sec per train crossing to Platform 1)
  • #9a: 304 Signal approach clearing removal (eliminates risk of Up EMUs stalling at Neutral section).
  • #9b: 204 Signal approach clearing removal (eliminate the need for trains to slow to 20/km).

Overall the time savings of this could result in travel time savings for

Southern Line – Up Main Services of 70sec & Down Main Services of 35sec
Onehunga Line – Up Main Services of 65sec & Onehunga Down Main Services of 35sec
Western Line – Up Main Services of 30sec & Western Down Main Services of 20sec

However some of travel times may be negated by the opening of Parnell station, however Southern Services will of course have that offset by the closing of Westfield.

They are also looking at adjusting the level crossings to allow higher line speeds, this will be very useful if implemented for Western Line users.

Modifying the level crossings to support higher speed operation will result in the level crossing alarms operating for longer until the trains start running at the higher speed.

It mentions the potential reports to be done in the future for other sections of the rail network, hopefully we will see further optimisation in the future.

How fast should our trains be

In just under a month’s time, on 12 March, Auckland Transport will introduce a new rail timetable. There are a couple of significant changes that we know will come with this timetable:

  • Westfield Station will close
  • Parnell Station will open, served initially by Southern Line trains with Western Line trains only stopping in evenings and weekends.
  • Onehunga line trains will skip Greenlane and Remuera stations. This is said to be to speed up services enough that it frees up a 3-car train.
  • Speeds on the other lines will also be improved, enough that it frees up an additional two 3-car trains.
  • In total the changes free up three 3-car trains, which will be used to boost capacity on some peak services.

From what we hear, what won’t be included in this timetable change is any improvement to frequencies, which is desperately needed off-peak and weekends, especially in the South where the new bus network has already been implemented.

The issue of train speed is something we’ve talked about a lot recently, such as Stu’s excellent post on the economic benefits of speeding up our trains, and a guest post on how our trains are slower than even steam trains used to be. I want to focus on it again in this post.

If you recall, when we moved to electric trains Auckland Transport actually slowed down the timetable. They  padded it out to make the punctuality results look better, especially as the old diesels started to break down with increasing frequency. Following the initial services that were converted to electrics, there also turned out to be a number of issues with the signalling system, other infrastructure and operations (such as dwell times), which prevented trains from being as fast as they should.

In July 2015, Auckland Transport released a report outlining all of the work they intended to do to improve train reliability and speed. From what I understand, not all of it was eventually implemented, for a variety of reasons. However, much of the work they did do has contributed to the record highs we currently experience for punctuality and reliability. In the 12 months to the end of December, 98.6% of all trains arrived at their final destination and 96.5% of those did so within five minutes of the schedule. That’s up from lows in mid-2015 of round 96% and 83% respectively, and some individual months were considerably lower again.

So what can we expect with this new timetable? In their board reports, AT have said

Train 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.

 

We’ll have to wait to see just how big the speed improvements will be, but we’re hearing they aren’t significant – perhaps a 3-4 minute improvement on the current timetable at best. If correct, then in our view that’s simply not good enough. And if that is the case, AT’s lack of action mean serious questions need to be asked by those charged with overseeing and managing the organisation, especially seeing as the train network has been all-electric for over 18 months now. Also remember that speeding up services was something the council recently outlined as a key expectation of Auckland Transport.

  • ensuring full value is obtained from council’s very large investment in rail electrification by reducing journey times, particularly through shorter dwell times at stations and more efficient rail operations

But just how fast should our trains be? We’ve made plenty of our own estimates in the past, so with this post I’m going to look at some official estimates of what should be achievable.

The data for this comes from a document I was given by the EMU project team in early 2013. The document includes a lot of detailed technical information from train manufacturer CAF, such as acceleration and braking profiles. Importantly for this post, it also includes modelling just how fast the trains should be. In fact, it goes further, showing how CAF’s proposal compares to the original requirement from Kiwirail (the government initially put Kiwirail in charge of the EMU tender but it and the team were later transferred to AT).

The modelling shows exactly how fast both Kiwirail and CAF say the trains would be between stations, including dwell times. For the Western and Southern lines, the modelling includes trains stopping at Parnell, while for the Southern and Eastern lines it includes stopping at Westfield. Onehunga times weren’t included in the part of the document they provided me. For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to show the times listed as being Kiwirail’s Requirement, but in all cases, CAF estimated their trains would be up to about 30 seconds faster over the entire journey. The modelling is also done for each direction of each route, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just list the times to Britomart (the differences in direction are minor).

First up, I’ve replicated the tables from the documents. One of the things that immediately stands out is that with the exception of Newmarket, all stations are expected to only have a 30 second dwell time. Even off peak at a quiet station, AT can’t achieve that kind of time. Newmarket is expected to have a 1-minute dwell for Southern line trains and a 2-minute dwell for Western line trains.

That’s fairly detailed, so next I cut the results down to compare them to our current timetables, remembering that current timetables are rounded to whole minutes. It’s also worth noting that on the current timetables, the Southern and Eastern lines have a two minute variation in travel times. In both cases I used the lower of the two.

Now I appreciate there’s always going to be a difference between some modelled results and what can be achieved in real life, but the difference between the current timetable and what was required of tenderers is, as Trump says, yuuuge.

In fact, the savings are so big they’re CRL sized – in the info published by AT about the CRL, they list New Lynn to Britomart as improving from 35 minutes to 27 minutes. Under the required times from Kiwirail above, which don’t include the CRL and include stopping at Parnell as well as Westfield, the trip is supposed to take ….. 27 minutes. Or course, that doesn’t negate the time saving benefits of the CRL. These time savings would then stack on top, so New Lynn to Britomart should be as low as 19 minutes post-CRL. Think about what impact that would have on how people choose to get around.

A really important advantage of getting speeds close to these required levels is that it would free up more trains, which could then be used to further increase capacity on the network. Or course, with times so much faster, that capacity will certainly be needed for all the extra people that will want to use the services.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that we don’t know what happened along the way of buying the trains, and it’s possible that for budget reasons that AT had to make some compromises in design – but I’d certainly hope not.

I imagine there are still a number of improvements that could be made to improve travel times – such as eliminating level crossings on the Western Line – but in my mind, the biggest opportunity is improving our horrifically slow dwell times. That will likely require a mix of both physical and operational changes.

Coming back to the question of how fast our trains should be, I think that if we could get within 2-3 minutes of what was originally expected (and remember CAF said their trains would exceed those times), then I suspect we’ll be doing well.

ATAP ASAP’s – Extra Trains

In Part 1 of my series I wrote about the Third Main between Westfield & Wiri as being an ATAP (Auckland Transport Alignment Project) ASAP, a first decade project that in my opinion needed funding straight away, my second post of this series is about the need for extra trains pre-CRL (City Rail Link).

Currently we have 57 three-car trains and anyone who uses trains on a regular basis will have seen the massive growth in patronage. People at peak report crowded trains, as well people in some shoulder peak services in which some services are only three-car trains instead of six. Even I have noticed it the 5:58am from Avondale which is no longer a very empty train. But don’t take my word for it, the patronage figures speak for themselves.

By allowing for more efficient operations, the CRL will improve capacity but that is not due to be finished until 2023which means we have a long way to go & a lot of growth needing to be accommodated.

ATAP states that three tranches of 21 extra trains are needed over the 30-years between 2018-2048, one tranche per decade. In order to cope with the growth we’re already seeing, let alone what the CRL will deliver, we really need to order the first tranche of additional trains now. That will allow Auckland Transport to run more services as six-car trains, ensuring that all peak and shoulder peak trains are appropriately bulked up, especially in the afternoons where trains are used for school students.

Rail Development Programme

It is imperative we order the trains sooner rather than later as the trains have about a 2 year lead time, meaning if we ordered them today they still wouldn’t arrive until late 2018, by which time services will be significantly more crowded. Of course trains don’t come cheap and each one costs around $10 million and ATAP budgets $210 million for each of the first two tranches. We also know that AT have been looking at the idea of buying some battery powered trains to allow them to serve Pukekohe without needing wires.

Regardless, the network is growing like crazy and we need the capacity to get through to the CRL. Add in the long lead times for production and that we’ll definitely need them once the CRL opens and I think we have ourselves an ATAP ASAP.

 

I have an extra set, but it may still have capacity issues :D

I have an extra set, but we may still have capacity issues 😀

So what do you think?

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.

 

Battery powered trains for Pukekohe

Since the majority of the Auckland network went electric last year, people travelling to and from Pukekohe have had to catch one of the old diesel trains as a shuttle from the end of the wires at Papakura. As I understand it the main reason the wires weren’t extended further than Papakura was the cost. It might be one extra station but it would represent about 36km extra of track to wire up.

Coming to the western line soon

Could battery powered trains be coming to Pukekohe

The diesel shuttle is ok as a short term solution but long term we’re going to need to do something about extending electric trains south of Papakura, especially as there is a ton of growth planned for the area with tens of thousands of homes to be built in close proximity to the rail corridor. Electrifying the line was included as part of the Transport for Future Urban Growth consultation recently.

TFUG - Draft Preferred Plan - South

We’ve seen in the past that electrifying this section of track isn’t cheap and combined with new stations to serve those developments and AT have estimated it at over $100 million – I’ve seen some estimates as high as $140 million. Even so the business case we saw in 2012 suggested the economic return was ok with a BCR of 2.1.

At some point, last year I think, there was a suggestion that Auckland Transport were looking at an alternative solution to the traditional stringing up of wires, getting trains with batteries attached. Now it seems AT are talking much more publicly about that with a report from Radio NZ suggesting that this idea is looking more and more promising.

Auckland rail commuters could be riding in battery-powered trains within a few years if the city’s transport agency can find the right technology – and the money.

Auckland Transport said a new fleet of electric trains with large battery packs would be able to serve towns beyond the end of the electrified network.

The agency has been working for more than a year on the project, along with the Spanish train-builder CAF,which supplied Auckland’s 57 new electric trains.

Adding four-tonne battery packs to a new fleet of electric trains is being studied as a cheaper option to extending electrification to the southern town of Pukekohe.

Commuters there have to shuttle in ageing diesel trains to reach the electric trains at Papakura.

Project manager Lloyd Major said battery-powered engines were cutting edge technology, but a new generation of batteries developed for electric cars made it more viable.

“Consequently we looked at the feasibility of doing it in Auckland. The Spanish manufacturer CAF is very confident, to the extent that six months ago we thought we’d need to build a prototype, but now we think it’s more about just finding the right battery.”

There’s perhaps a little irony if it was due to the development of electric cars that battery powered trains became a viable solution, and it’s an interesting solution at that. I don’t know anything about the financials behind option but I imagine it could save tens of millions if not more from not having to run wires and that would obviously be a good thing – although it should be noted that electrification to Pukekohe should really be being paid for by the government like they did with the rest the Auckland network.

The report says that AT would need about 18 trains to serve Pukekohe (and the southern line) and that would also allow the trains currently used on the line to be freed up to bolster the capacity of other services around the network so pursuing such an option could see train capacity improved faster.

While I’m sure there is still plenty of work to be done to see if it is feasible, the idea seems like it could be a good one. Who knows perhaps it might also one day allow trains to travel further afield such as to Pokeno which sits outside Auckland’s boundaries.

What do you think of the idea of battery powered trains?

ATs solution, hope growth slows

We’ve questioned before whether Auckland Transport have bought enough electric trains. This has been prompted by repeated experiences of myself and others of packed trains at some times of the day. At the peak of the peak this is not unexpected but at that time services are also normally run by 6-car trains. The concern has been around services just outside of the peak where only 3-car sets are run.

Full EMU

We are also aware that there are still a few more new trains yet to come into service which can be used to lengthen existing trains and hopefully increase frequencies on the Western Line.

Yet with the extremely strong growth in train use that Auckland is experiencing any extra capacity we have will quickly be used up. It seems that AT’s solution to this is simply hope the level of growth starts to fall.

AT Metro general manager Mark Lambert said if the slowdown in growth did not fall to near the 5 percent forecast in 2017/18, the agency would consider options.

“If there’s crowding and either we can’t afford to, or there’s a long lead-in time for additional trains, an option could be, for example, to reduce fares either side of the really congested peak period to encourage people to take the less patronised services”, said Mr Lambert.

Mr Lambert said it was too soon to consider whether occasional crowding during the peak was a problem, as additional trains were still to be added, and teething troubles with new technology can disrupt travel patterns.

The agency’s decision-making is locked into forecasts made by a planning model agreed with the Government, called APT3, which would share the cost of any extra trains.

It said so far, the growth was in line with APT3, and if the existing fleet could cope until the opening of the City Rail Link in the early-mid 2020s, that downtown loop would boost the capacity of the rail network by allowing trains to circulate more frequently.

That’s quite an extraordinary statement really for an organisation that should be doing everything it can to boost growth and of course plays right into the hands of the government and Ministry of Transport who have said something similar as a justification for not starting the CRL earlier than 2020.

We expect to see continued strong rail patronage growth until around 2017/18, as the full electric train fleet comes into service and the new bus network is rolled out. From 2017/18, we expect the rate of patronage growth to slow.

The thing I do agree with though is the suggestion that AT should be looking to ideas like cheaper off peak fares to try and spread the peak out. But that is something that should be being done anyway rather than waiting till trains are full.

Another solution I heard suggested was to run some shorter running services on the western line to pick up people in the inner west. This would be a very poor way for AT to treat long suffering western line passengers in my opinion.

In another story it also seems that AT are looking in to whether they could add batteries to some trains to allow them to travel to and from Pukekohe without actually installing wires. If feasible this seems like it has the potential to be a good solution to get electrics’ to Pukekohe sooner.

Auckland Transport general manager Mark Lambert said he was in talks with the electric train manufacturer to see if whether could put enhanced battery technology into the existing trains, so they could get to Pukekohe.

The main issue with it would be that AT have said in the past that to extend electrics to Puke they would need at least two additional trains – possibly more. Without buying more trains that means trains would have to be pulled from current services which won’t do anything to help the crowding issues.

In the please no discussion about adding extra carriages, we’ve seen that a lot already.

Celebrating the 57th electric train

Today Auckland Transport celebrated the arrival of the last electric train – of this first batch. The celebration also included a visit by Prime Minister John Key

EMU Celebration - 1

Auckland Transport has officially marked the arrival of the last of the city’s 57 electric trains with a function at the Wiri Train Depot attended by the Prime Minister.

The last three trains from Spanish manufacturer CAF landed on the wharf last week and are now going through final checks at the depot prior to certification.

Auckland Transport chairman Dr Lester Levy says it’s been a swift journey since the contract for the trains was signed in October 2011. “In less than four years we have seen 57 three-car trains roll-off the production line in Spain, they’re all here now and they’ve been delivered on time and on budget.”

Dr Levy says more than 14 million trips are now being made on the Auckland rail network each year. “That’s fantastic considering that in 2003 when Britomart opened less than three million trips were being taken each year.”

He says this project has had excellent support from the Government including a $500 million loan to fund the electric trains and the Wiri depot. “There has also been a government grant of $90 million and one of $40 million from Auckland Council, we would like to thank them for their support.”

Transport Minister Simon Bridges says the Government is committed to working with Auckland Council to see Auckland succeed. “The arrival of these trains marks the culmination of the Government’s $1.6 billion, decade-long investment in three Auckland metro rail projects.

“Over the next three years, $4.2 billion will be invested to build a robust, future-proofed transport system for Auckland.”

Dr Levy says Auckland now has trains that are of international standard. “The quality trains, along with a boost in the number of services means more people are seeing rail as an option.”

The first electric trains began operating on the Onehunga line in April 2014 and the network from Papakura in the south to Swanson in the west went all-electric just a few weeks ago on 20 July.

“We know many of the trains are already full at peak time but now that all 57 trains are here we will get more double trains operating to help ease the situation.”

Mayor Len Brown says “We’ve busted the myth that you can’t get Aucklanders out of their cars and the electric trains are fuelling the success. But their popularity means we’re becoming the victims of our own success. At the existing rate of growth, we will reach train service capacity by 2016. This emphasises the urgent need to get cracking on building the CRL.”

Each train has seating for 232 passengers and standing room for more. The trains have wider doors making it easier for passengers.

The central carriage is at platform level for wheelchairs, prams or bikes and automatic ramps mean a seamless transition between the platform and the train.

Open gangways between cars mean passengers can move from one end of the train to the other.

Some facts and figures:

  • The supplier, CAF used equipment from Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain – taking the best from the world to create trains specifically for Auckland.
  • It takes more than 15,000 hours to fabricate and assemble one electric train unit, there is 110km of wiring in each unit.
  • Each train is tested for 1000 hours on the tracks.
  • The maximum operating speed is 110km/hr, however, the average operating speed will be less than this.
  • To provide improvements to efficiency each train has regenerative braking, allowing braking energy to be fed back into the 25kv supply – a recovery of up to 20% of the energy used.
  • Noise reduction: the 25kV power supply means that the trains are very quiet both externally and internally – a very important consideration for people living and working near the rail network.
  • There’s no air pollution from the trains because they are electric and there are no exhaust fumes.
  • Rail patronage in Auckland grew 21.7% in the year to the end of June, that’s two and a half million more passengers than in June last year.
  • The number using all public transport in Auckland reached 79 million in the year to June, an increase of 9.5% or on average 19,000 extra boardings per day.

I was secretly hoping that John Key might announce the government were bringing forward the City Rail Link, electrification to Pukekohe or even just the ordering of more trains but sadly that didn’t happen. Below are the speeches from Lester Levy, John Key and Len Brown (sorry audio quality isn’t the best)

Lester Levy

John Key – I particularly liked his comments that he doesn’t think Aucklanders are any different to people in the rest of the world and will use PT if good quality options are provided. Now if only the government will follow up that with appropriate funding to enable that to happen.

Len Brown

It is fantastic that all trains are now here – although it will be a few months before all are on the tracks. One thing mentioned in Lester’s speech was that the EMUs were seeing much improved reliability and punctuality. To highlight that yesterday saw 99% reliability i.e. only three services from over 500 failed to run and 95% punctuality meaning that only 5% of services were later than 5 minutes to their destination. That’s a dramatic improvement on what we’ve had in the past.

Of course the next thing we will need is more trains. As mentioned sadly there was no announcement of that because as I understand it, it will take about 2 years to get new units built and delivered. Given the rapid growth in patronage that means we will probably need to be ordering those very soon. On patronage I don’t have July figures yet but I’ve been told they are very good and in addition August is looking good so far too.

 

Do we have enough trains – part 2

Late last week I asked the question of whether we have enough trains. The post has resulted in a lot of discussion however some of the answers I received from Auckland Transport left me asking more questions. In particular

CAF has committed to supplying 46 EMUs for weekday operations. That number is sufficient for 12 of the 34 train sets required to operate the timetable to be doubled as 6-car trains.

So I sought some clarification around why only supply of 46 EMUs. AT have now have now provided that clarification confirming that the 46 was just to implement the services we have now and an additional six sets will be available for service once the roll-out has been completed.

The 46 sets is what CAF has confirmed they can supply to daily service as at 20 July. This does not include two additional EMUs that are held on standby ready to inject into service operations to smooth service recovery following disruption. A further three EMUs are not available as they are waiting for replacement ETCS equipment which has long lead times. These are expected to be released for service over the next few weeks. Three EMUs are “maintenance spares” which allow CAF to take the trains out of service for lengthy periods for major maintenance.

Capacity will be increased from the three trains currently out of service plus the three to be delivered next week. Once the accelerated delivery schedule is complete and all 57 EMUs have been accepted into service, up to six existing 3-carriage trains could be increased to 6-carriage trains (based on the current timetable).

I guess only time will tell if the extra six trains will be enough to cover the capacity constraints at the peak and shoulder peak periods.

Full EMU

My 6-car train was pretty full last night

Note: the comments of first post contained a lot of discussion around buying extra carriages or bringing back the old diesels. There is no need to rehash those arguments again.

Getting to an all electric network

Today marks the first time in Auckland that all train services on a normal weekday will be run by electric trains. While I’m sure there are bound to be more teething issues as a result, it represents a significant milestone in the progress towards a better and more balanced transport system for Auckland. However while I’m glad to see the back of the old diesels, without them we also wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. It’s clear that earlier investments in both the diesels and the network achieved enough patronage growth that they helped convince officials and politicians to agree to spend over $1 billion, to electrify the network and buy new trains. With that in mind, I thought I’d once again take a bit of a look at the history of the rail network and what led us to this point.

Up until recently, trains in Auckland were not that widely used, and could best be described as being in a fairly constant state of decay. That’s the result of a few things including:

  • Up until the mid-1950’s most of the population was covered by trams, trains only served outlying areas.
  • In 1930 the main train station was moved from where Britomart is now (but on the surface) to the now old Auckland Train station next to Vector Arena. That made trains an inconvenient mode for most.
  • Despite repeated attempts over many decades to improve rail, nothing ever got off the ground and no real investment was put into the system.
  • During the same time we put huge investment into the motorway network and making it easier to drive.

Due to the factors above – and likely others – patronage continued to decline. Usage of rail was so low that in the 1980’s serious consideration was put into ripping up the tracks alongside the southern motorway and turning them into more lanes. By the early 1990’s patronage was reached its lowest point, barely scraping above 1 million trips a year. However it was about this time that a turnaround started and it was all the result of one man and some amazing luck. You can read the full story here but the short version is:

He had been tasked with shutting the network down but after looking at the operation he worked out he was able to cut costs and start turning a profit and extend the contracts. At the same time Perth was just finishing electrifying their own rail network and had no use for their old diesel trains allowing most of them to be brought at scrap value for use in Auckland. The Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) started plying the tracks in 1992. Within a few years patronage had doubled to over 2 million trips per year – higher than it was for most of the 1980’s and late 1970’s.

AT-ARTA-Image-TrainsAtBritomart

A DMU (left) and SA set (right) at Britomart

Things really kicked up a gear in 2003 when Britomart opened, once again returning trains back to the city. The growth in patronage was too much for the DMU’s to handle and so from 2004 the first of the SA sets started arriving. These are the refurbished carriages – originally from the UK – that are hauled by freight locomotives and which became such a common sight on the rail network in Auckland. In total over 100 carriages were refurbished over a five year period.

Both the DMUs and SA sets represented a big step forward compared to what had existed before and growth continued as more services kept being added. In 2006 this was further boosted by the government agreeing on Project DART (Developing Auckland’s Rail Transport Network) which saw the double tracking of the Western Line as well as station upgrades such as Newmarket and New Lynn, the reopening of the Onehunga line and the building of a new line to Manukau. Impressively despite frequent and often massive disruption as a result of the major works being undertaken, patronage continued to rise.

In 2010 after delaying electrification to re-evaluate it and cancel a planned regional fuel tax that would have paid for the trains, the current government agreed to fund electrification and give the council a loan to buy the new trains. This meant that from 2011 onwards the rail network continued to be plagued by significant disruption however despite this patronage kept rising. The only exception to this was in 2012/13 when the after-effect of two significant events kicked in at the same time. One was the boost that came from the Rugby World Cup (~400,000 trips) and the second was a change in the way patronage was counted as a result of the introduction of HOP. However since then patronage has once again risen again – more than making up the lost ground.

The plan was to buy 38 trains and then separately buy some electric locomotives to haul the SA sets around for another decade or so however in 2011 the government agreed it would be better and cheaper over the long term to buy an extra 19 trains and run a single uniform fleet – plus the SA sets couldn’t run through the future CRL for safety reasons. All of this meant we’re getting a total fleet of 57 trains.

The first Electric Train (EMU) arrived in August 2013 and entered service at the end of April 2014. They then slowly started to be rolled out to Manukau line services in August before being rolled out to all services in December. This year we’ve already started to see electric trains on some Southern and Western line services. While the full roll out to all lines has only been completed today the impact of the new electric trains has been extraordinary. For example in the 12 months to the end of May patronage on the Eastern Line is up a staggering 43.7%. As I understand it, of the 57 trains we ordered, all but the last few are in the country with the final ones arriving in August.

EMUs at the Depot

Photo by Patrick Reynolds

The chart below shows the history of rail patronage over the time-frame above including some of the significant events mentioned. Of note is it includes the 2014/15 result (to the end of June) which AT has confirmed to me as 13.9 million over the year. That’s up almost 22% over the 11.4 million trips to the end of June 2014. That level of growth puts us well on track towards the target the government have set for an earlier start date for the next major rail project – the CRL. Current estimates see that figure being passed in around 2017/18.

Auckland Rail Patronage 1990-2015

While the diesel trains have definitely served a purpose and helped improve rail use in Auckland. In the last eight months or so they’ve been increasingly unreliable as maintenance on them was reduced. At the same time there have been bedding in issues with the new EMUs. With a single fleet now it should mean that those involved in delivering train services in Auckland – AT, CAF, Kiwirail and Transdev – should be able to focus on addressing just one set of issues. At the end of June we learned of their action plan for the next year for this.

EMU + Rail improvement action plan 1 - Jun - Sep

One of the most interesting aspects of the Auckland rail story is the links with Perth. Not only did we buy their old diesel trains but they’re often cited as a case study by officials thanks to the significant uptake in rail use thanks to electrification and new projects.  At the time they went electric their system carried around 10 million passengers which is not too far off what our network was carrying when we first started running electric trains. It is hoped that we’ll emulate some of the success they’ve had – which has also come from building significant new lines. Here’s how patronage on the two networks look.

Auckland vs Perth Patronage - 2015

I believe that in a few years-time that electrification, just like with Britomart, will be one those projects we look back on and wonder why it took us so many decades to do, why politicians from all sides refused to believe it could work. Lastly I was in Britomart yesterday and it really is wonderful how quiet the station is now that we don’t have rattly old diesel trains in it. Thank you to everyone who has helped get us to this point.

p.s. next we need to get electrification extended to Pukekohe for a fully all electric network.

Dropping the Dwell

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.

Coming to the western line soon

Coming to the western line soon

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.

EMU vs Diesel Dwell Time

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