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.

rail-network-actual-vs-projected

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.

 

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.

 

EMU Faults and CRL Properties

There have been a couple of articles in the Herald in the last few days that are worth talking about.

Double EMU Orakei Basin

Photo by Alex Burgess http://nzrailphotos.co.nz/

 

On Friday there was the issue of faults with the new electric trains.

Auckland’s new electric trains are still being bugged by computer software and braking problems, which have brought engineers out from Spain in search of remedies.

The city’s transport authority disclosed this week it is trying to bring forward from August the completion of its rollout of its $400 million fleet of electric trains, after continuing disruptions from diesel breakdowns.

But it is not just the old trains that are causing trouble, leading to a reduction in punctuality on all the city’s railway lines except for the Onehunga branch.

Rail workers are concerned some of the new trains are having to be shut down for their on-board computers to be reset, and that a sophisticated new control system designed to prevent collisions “has a tendency to randomly apply” emergency brakes when passing certain signals.

One industry source said in a message received indirectly by the Herald this morning there had been breakdowns on the rail network causing disruption “every day” for the past three weeks.

The emergency braking problem caused chaotic scenes at Britomart and Newmarket stations in the morning commuter rush in December, when a driver’s unfamiliarity with the new system prompted him to disable several other systems on board his train, disrupting 15 other services.

Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton told his board this week, in his monthly business report, that Siemens Spain had undertaken a two-week investigation in New Zealand and was “working to improve ETCS [European Train Control System] reliability.”

It seems there has been a number of issues that have arisen with the trains, as the also herald notes in the article there were issues with how restrictive the new signalling system was when the trains were first introduced and it seems further improvements are due. I’m aware there have also been issues with the power supply and with the doors, both of which have been fixed. The latest issues seems to include some gremlins in the traction systems – something I’m sure will be ironed out.

I guess for me the thing is that while this is very concerning and annoying, this isn’t uncommon when brand new systems are installed. Even in mature networks new machines or parts of the network will tend to have issues. As an example the new trains in Wellington had to be pulled from service a number of times over a few years due to issues that arose.

While the outcome for passengers tends to be the same – delays and frustration – that’s quite different from the issues with the aging diesel trains. As I understand it, for them there’s often a difficult decision between temporarily patching up issues and properly fixing them – which could be quite costly – when the trains will likely only be used for another month or two.

In effect we seem to have both fleets of trains (electric and diesel) at opposite sides of a bell curve. The electrics have a lot of faults but they are getting better and more reliable and it is likely that soon faults will become much rarer while on the other side the diesels are getting more and more unreliable and that in part is also be accelerated by their pending replacement. Unfortunately what isn’t changing is the poor communication when things go wrong. Perhaps what AT and Transdev need is some more transparency in the matter and to explain to the pubic exactly what is going wrong. If the public were more aware of what the issues being faced are then they might be more accepting of the situation. In lieu of that that faults are leaving people with bad experiences and driving people away from using trains.

The second piece was related to the property purchases for the City Rail Link.

Plans for Auckland Transport’s ambitious $2.4 billion City Rail Link project are gathering speed, as it secures more real estate along the route.

An AT spokeswoman said the council-controlled authority had now bought 58 of the 70 surface properties it needs, spending $85 million securing the route – a critical part of Auckland’s biggest transport project.

That means AT now controls 83 per cent of the properties it needs and the full-steam-ahead approach has seen big progress since last year.

The update indicated 23 new property purchases were concluded in the past nine months, as owners agree to sell their land and buildings for the rail route’s progress.

AT’s relatively rapid pace is a big advance from the middle of last year when it had only concluded 35 surface purchases and spent $35 million.

Some politicians have questioned why all the pricey real estate is being bought well before Government funding as AT closes deals on the properties along its 3.4km Britomart to Mt Eden route.

AT’s biggest sticking point appears to remain the valuable Mt Eden Life Church, a property which it has been negotiating on for some time: the spokeswoman said the purchase of that big property near the Mt Eden Station, between the bottom of Flower St and Mt Eden Rd, was yet to be concluded.

Part of that issue is finding the Christians a new property. The spokeswoman said that was very much part of the deal and that no sale would be concluded until it was resolved.

“The issue is finding an alternative site. Negotiations are under way,” she said of 95 Mt Eden Rd.

The church has a number of businesses and owns several properties to the north and south but that property is the heart of its church operation.

That seems like good progress and given the rise in land values Auckland has been seeing – especially in and around the city centre – it is probably a good thing that they are buying the property now and not waiting until the government commit funding by which time the costs would have likely increased dramatically. The biggest risk is that it’s quite possible that when the government do help fund the project they will ignore the property purchases and enabling works (cut and cover tunnel to Wyndham St) and only fund 50% of the remaining costs.

I’m not an expert on the Public Works Act but is it normal for a public organisation to have to find alternative sites for current occupants? I guess that’s likely the easiest thing instead of forcing a sale but seems like it could end up quite costly.

Electric Trains from Manukau from tomorrow

Electric trains start rolling out on the Manukau line from tomorrow however unlike the Onehugna Line not all services will switch over at once with them only starting on off peak services before being introduced over the course of a month to peak services too.

The roll-out of electric trains in Auckland steps up next week with the introduction of the new trains on the Manukau Line.

Initially electric trains will run on some off-peak services, they will be introduced to all services over the next month.

Auckland Transport’s Chief Operations Officer Greg Edmonds says the new trains have been very popular since their introduction on the Onehunga Line in April but with any transition we should be prepared for “teething problems.”

“We want to ensure our customers who use the trains to Manukau are getting a reliable service so we will be gradually increasing the number of electric trains over the next month.”

Meanwhile, testing continues across the rail network following an intermittent power fault which saw some Onehunga services affected. Mr Edmonds stresses there are no safety issues associated with the fault.

From memory this is actually slightly ahead of schedule which is good.

PT RESOLUTION EMU_6484

Photo by Patrick Reynolds

I’m sure those on the eastern line can’t wait for them to roll out as I frequently get reports of people having to wait for 2 or 3 trains before being able to get on board at peak times. At this stage AT are just rolling out the EMUs on to the existing timetable however there is hopefully going to be a timetable improvement in the coming months that will boost the number of services from Manukau.

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EMU delays

There’s been comment on it already in my post from this morning on the EMU launch but I just wanted to address the issue of the delays to the Electric train this morning. The herald were quick to jump on it.

Auckland’s gleaming new electric trains launched into business at 5.48am today – and quickly experienced delays.

Much fuss was made this morning as the first trains to enter passenger service headed out of Onehunga with regular commuters outnumbered by transport officials, politicians and journalists on the 72-metre train.

However a combination of driver nerves and possible problems with the retraction of the door steps meant trains were running up to 25 minutes late this morning.

Special ambassadors on board the train told passengers they were sorry for the delays but there were a few teething problems.

They then reportedly asked passengers for their patience while the drivers got used to the new trains.

One official at the Onehunga station told the Herald the delays were due to a problem with the automatic steps which were not retracting properly.

A press release from Transdev at 9.30 confirmed some Southern & Onehunga lines are experiencing some minor delays.

In many ways this isn’t surprising and there always seem to be these kinds of teething issues that crop up when something so new happens. It’s happened after signalling and track upgrades and after station upgrades. For example there was a huge problem a in early 2010 the day the new Newmarket Station opened. The reality is that while these teething problems are a pain and very disappointing, they do tend to be very temporary and limited to the first day or two. If we are still having problems in a few days then we need to be getting concerned.

The EMU Launch

Electric train services are finally a part of the city with the first ones running earlier this morning and yesterday I went along to the official launch of the trains. The first thing I noticed was that Auckland Transport had set up stalls and activities for kids including shutting down the central part of Gore St through the Britomart Precinct, a much better use of it in my opinion. I don’t actually know why we need that road open but that’s perhaps a discussion for a different day.

EMU Launch - Gore St Play

Auckland Transport clearly really wanted to promote the electric trains as futuristic and had a number of promo girls (and some guys) dressed up like something out of The 5th Element.

EMU Launch - Promo 2

 

One thing that was definitely noticeable at the launch was the number of politicians present. They were there representing most of the major parties and at a local level a heap of councillors and local board members. Perhaps the one that surprised me the most was seeing John Banks there.

As with all of these types of projects there are numerous speeches and I understand that Auckland Transport has filmed them all and will be putting them online later today. Before the speeches started a group of dancers in silver suits and masks entertained to some Daft Punk. It started getting a bit odd though as it just kept on going and going and ended up feeling like it carried on for far too long – not that it distracted too much from mood of the day.

EMU Launch Dancers

On to the speeches there were a couple of highlights and some lowlights too.

  • First up was Ngarimu Blair who is a Trustee on the Ngati Whatua o Orakei Maori Trust Board and also on the board of Waterfront Auckland. He opened the launch on behalf of iwi and got a cheer when he said they want to see the CRL started asap and completed in 2020.
  • Iñaki from CAF was next to speak and talked about how good the trains are.
  • A lady from the Blind Foundation spoke about how they had worked with AT on improving the trains to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Lester followed with what was essentially his op-ed piece to the herald on Saturday.
  • The next speech was perhaps unsurprisingly the oddest of all. Gerry Brownlee talked about the need to invest in other nodes too (yes he said nodes, not modes). He then proceed to talk about how the government was doing just that by fast tracking a number of motorway projects around the region. I think the crowd were stunned in to silence by this that there was an eerie silence. I must of missed something as after Gerry’s speech David Warburton who was emceeing the event made a comment that he wasn’t referring to Gerry as the Fat Controller.
  • Len was the last to speak and was as enthusiastic as ever and clearly directing a few comments towards Gerry about the need for the CRL. He ended by calling on more people to get off the parking lots of the motorways and on to trains, buses and ferries (missed cycling though) which would free up roads for commercial traffic.

After a brief reminder from Warburton about just how much effort had gone into the production and testing of these trains it was time to head down to the platform for the cutting of a ribbon (of which I understand Cam’s son was involved) and then the first official ride.

As always seems to happen, everyone was piling on to the first carriage available and so Patrick, I and others headed to the middle one which has the advantage of level boarding and more space due to longitudinal seating. Acceleration out of the station was super smooth as was the trip around the back of Vector arena. After clearing those curves though the driver was able to open the train up a bit and the acceleration was such that people had to hold on. In other words these things have a lot of power and of course that will be needed to get trains up the CRL, although they’ve been designed with enough power so that one EMU will be able to push another completely dead one up the grade. Someone on a later trip filmed the acceleration and you can hear people surprised it as well as see the speed increase out the window from about 3:40 onwards.

The only problem was the acceleration and speed was that it seemed so short lived as it seemed the frustrating Sarawia St level crossing didn’t work in our favour and we almost had to completely stop as a result.  It’s perhaps a shame the eastern line wasn’t able to be used for a race across Hobson Bay.

Even so, all up it seemed everyone was thoroughly impressed with the new trains. You can see the AT press release here but the most interesting part is really the facts and figures at the bottom

  • There are now 12 electric train units in Auckland. Seven have been commissioned – that is, they have their registration and warrants with five more about to be tested.
  • The supplier, CAF has 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 are 110km of wiring in each unit.
  • Each train is tested for 1000 hours on the tracks.
  • To create the weight of passengers while we were testing the trains, we used 1800 20kgs sandbags on each train.
  • To date we have trained 47 drivers, 86 train managers and 13 supervisors.
  • We have spent 3008 hours on driver training and 1504 hours on theory.
  • Drivers have spent 752 hours on the electric train simulator.
  • To date we have driven more than 25,000kms with the electric trains during testing and commissioning.

A couple of other things that caught my attention about the day:

This poster which Auckland Transport had kids (and a few adults) painting. I’m guessing there were multiple versions of it.

EMU Launch - Painting

The bike and pram parking. I like this development from Auckland Trasnsport at events.

EMU Launch - Bike Parking

AT were selling a limited edition HOP card to celebrate the new trains. I’m not sure whether to keep it as a souvenir or actually use it 😉

EMU Launch - HOP Card

The new uniforms for staff. It looks ok on staff in the EMU’s but a bit out of place when a driver is sitting in a bulky locomotive. It’s clear that AT are owning the customer service brand even though the staff work for Transdev which is an interesting change. I’ll post about this separately.

EMU Launch - Uniforms

All up I think Auckland Transport did a really good job of organising the day which had the added bonus of further activating Takukai Square. If there’s one complaint I have it’s not about the launch but that Auckland Transport have yet to do anything to boost the frequency on the Onehunga line off peak. This week particularly is likely to be busy and additional services would be welcome. After all hourly frequencies are so old fashiond.

So did you take a ride on them yesterday (or today). If so what was your experience like? After the break some images people sent to me of themselves on one of the trains.

Continue reading The EMU Launch

Photo of the day – EMU Launch

Some great photos from reader Jonty some of our shiny new electric trains plying the line between Britomart and Newmarket.

The Rail Electrified

Generations dreamed the wires,
Doubters shook their heads in scorn.
Brave men vowed that they would build it
From their faith electrification was born.

There it spans the miles of track
Speeding millions on their way
Glimpse of vision, hope and courage,
Portal to a brighter day.

Adapted from “The Bridge at Mackinac” by David Barnard Steinman

Looking forward to seeing these at Britomart

Looking forward to seeing these at Britomart

Today is a day that we’ve looked forward to for a long time, the official launch of electric trains in Auckland (of course tomorrow is even more important with the first day services will run). I’ll cover off the launch tomorrow and if you’re attending send, tweet or facebook us pictures of you on the train and we’ll add them to the post.

For today though I thought it would be good to look at the long road to electrification. The earliest proposals originated in the 1920’s as it was necessary to be able to get trains up the grade of the Morningside Deviation which was the original plan for the City Rail Link. The additional costs to electrify the network were part of the justification for dropping those earlier tunnel plans. One of the reasons the costs were so high was that they proposed to electrify all the way to Helensville. There were similar occurrences in the 1940’s, 50’s and 70’s and unfortunately no-one seemed to think to separate out the projects like is now happening. As mentioned earlier this week, we came incredibly close to actually having our rail network closed down but thankfully it survived and with investment has started to thrive.

The current push for electrification really started in 2006 when the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA), one Auckland Transports precursor organisations, created the rail development plan. It was a 10 year plan to revitalise the rail network and make use of the untapped capacity it held. Core to the plan was the upgrade to the rail network that had started a year earlier known as Project DART. That included double tracking the Western Line, upgrading the Newmarket station and the Newmarket junction, the upgrading of other suburban stations and the building of the Manukau spur line (reopening the Onehunga Line came later).

The plan noted that the electrification of the rail network was a key policy decision. If Auckland was to go down the track of upgrading the network then there was only so long the existing trains (and proposed SA sets) would last and that new rolling stock would be needed. ARTA investigated the difference between buying new diesel trains and electrifying the system. When compared in a business case that took into account whole of life costs, electrification came out slightly ahead of buying new diesel trains. One thing not included in that assessment but that also helped in tipping the favour towards pushing for electrification was that if Auckland ever wanted a CRL that electrification was required for it so buying new diesel trains with a 35-40 year life would have prevented the CRL until we bit the bullet and electrified.

However despite the business case for an upgraded and electrified rail network looked good, it failed to win over then Finance Minister Michael Cullen. In response to questions in parliament he often used the same arguments against electrification and for the massive spend up in roading that his government were pushing that the current government do about the City Rail Link. That included the infamous line “buses need roads, too”.

Eventually Cullen was able to be convinced and in the 2007 budget a new appropriation was added providing $550 million towards electrification and a few other things.

Electrification Funding

The government would pay for the wires and Auckland was to pay for the trains that use them. From memory both would fund the cost of this by imposing a regional fuel tax on Auckland of up to 5c each. With this plans started to be made to get the projects needed underway and ARTA even got to the point of issuing an expression of interest document for 140 carriages, each 20m long. That would equate to 35 four car.

When National won in 2008 one of the first things they did was to scrap the regional fuel tax and put the whole project on hold pending a review of the whole project. A working group reviewing electrification came back with the most drastic change being in the trains themselves. Instead of the 20m long carriages they would 24m long carriages and operate in multiples of three. Considerably fewer trains (75 carriages) were to be ordered and to make up the numbers electric locomotives were to be brought to haul around the SA carriages.

In late 2009 the government finally announced that it was proceeding with electrification and thankfully didn’t scale back the EMU order quite as much as the working group suggested. They said they would loan Kiwirail $500 million to buy 38 new EMUs (114 carriages). In another change they agreed to pay for the infrastructure without imposing those costs solely on Auckland which in my opinion was actually a fairer way to do it. The contracts for the physical works were signed a few months later in January at the formal opening to the new Newmarket station.

For the EMU’s it would then be some months before we heard anything more. In July 2010 Kiwirail announced four companies had been shortlisted to build the trains, they were Hitachi Limited; Hyundai Rotem; Bombardier Transportation Australia Pty Limited; and a consortium of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, SA. (CAF) and Mitsubishi Corporation. However things got odder just three months later when Kiwirail expanded the shortlist by another six companies. Three of those were Chinese companies which led some people to claim that there was some sort of government interference in the deal. This wasn’t helped when in April 2011 it was revealed that Bombadier and three other companies had pulled out. Shortly after the list was narrowed to two companies.

In September 2011 we received some hugely positive news that the government had agreed to help fund an additional 19 EMUs bringing the total to 57 (171 carriages). That would mean we no longer needed to buy some electric locomotives to haul around old carriages. One of the reasons for this change was that Auckland Transport had been busy behind the scenes working out just what the difference to the whole of life costs would be. Additionally there were huge benefits to having only one type of train running on the network plus the electric loco/SA combination wouldn’t be able to work in the CRL due to the fire rating the carriages have. A month later we learned that CAF had won the tender to build the trains. This is the first image we saw of what they may look like.

trains1

Electrification itself has plodded along and sadly fell behind schedule. It was originally meant to be completed “before the rolling stock arrives in 2013). That was to be by September 2013 and it now doesn’t appear that it will be finish till about September this year – although Kiwirail say it hasn’t affected the roll-out of the trains though.

We continued following progress of the first train being constructed in Spain along with the Wiri depot that will maintain them with Patrick even visiting the factory in Spain last year. In late August last year the first train arrived in Auckland where it was trucked to Wiri to be commissioned and begin testing. I was even lucky enough to get some early trips on them during testing. As testing increased and more trains arrived they have become an increasingly common sight around the rail network. Here’s a video showing one entering Britomart as a test a few days ago

It’s been a long and sometimes uncertain path towards this point but from tomorrow they should be a permanent fixture of Auckland for decades to come. Thanks to everyone who helped get us to this point.

Herald confirms our electric trains are quiet

The Herald yesterday ran a story on just how quiet the new electric trains are. In a polar opposite there was a lot of noise on twitter about how the article was initially presented but after getting past that it provided some really useful information on just how good these trains are. Here’s the useful bit:

Informal noise sampling by the Herald measured the highest level inside electric multiple unit (EMU) number 129 at 72.9 decibels, compared with 83.6dB reached inside a locomotive-hauled train and 92dB in a diesel multiple unit between Puhinui and Homai stations on Auckland’s southern railway line.

With just the air-con switched on before the electric motors kicked in, the top level was 69dB.

A rule of thumb is that every increase of 10 decibels represents a doubling of noise, meaning a jet aircraft taking off at 100dB is roughly eight times as loud as a passenger car clocking 70dB at 105km/h.

Differences were even more pronounced outside the various trains, where the electric was at least four times quieter than diesels accelerating out of stations.

It reached a top count of 77dB when pulling out of its Wiri depot, compared with a high of 99.6dB for the DMU and 101.6dB for a loco-hauled train thundering away from Puhinui Station.

But being far quieter than the trains they will be replacing in a line-by-line rollout to mid-2015 presents a serious new challenge for the electrics, as they will be harder for pedestrians to hear coming.

That means rail operator Transdev is asking its drivers to take extra care to sound warning alarms when approaching level-crossings.

The differences in noise levels are substantial and it’s something I’ve noticed on the few times I’ve been lucky enough to have a trip on one of the EMUs. It’s quite telling also as I still remember a conversation with a one of the senior engineers involved in the project over a year ago. He told me that while they knew these trains would be quieter, they weren’t sure just how they would compare to a carriage in an SA set (the loco hauled ones) which are noisy if you’re in a carriage near the locomotive but can be quite as you move away from it. I’ve graphed the results the Herald recorded.

Note: This chart has been updated to represent perceived loudness rather than simple decibels.

The vast improvement in the exterior noise is impressive and something that is bound to be a welcome relief for those that live, work or play alongside a rail line. In fact if the figures are right then the new trains are quieter on the outside than the existing trains are on the inside. I think it will hugely improve the viability of increased densities along the rail corridor. You can get a sense for how quiet they are from this video

Another good example is this video from TVNZ during the testing.

What caused attention on twitter though was the attention on the noise of the air-conditioning. Basically the trains are so quite that when first turned on the air-con is slightly audible. To me it’s actually a good sign as it shows the rest of the train is of such a high quality that the only issue able to be picked up was air-con noise. What’s more it appears that the engineers are working hard to improve it further.

Acoustic engineers have been trying to soften the air-conditioning noise on Auckland’s new electric trains with a week to go before they are rolled out for commuter use.

A constant air-conditioning hum overlaid the gentle whirring of electric motors and clickety-clack of rail tracks as the Herald joined trainee drivers on a test run of one of five trains being readied to carry passengers between Onehunga and Britomart next week.

Auckland Transport, which is importing 57 three-car trains from Spain for about $540 million in a cost-sharing purchase and maintenance deal with the Government, insists their air-con units already meet noise and efficiency specification limits for both heating and cooling.

That follows considerable design work and the installation of noise-reducing material, said a spokesman for the council body.

But he acknowledged engineers were still fine-tuning the systems to maximise passenger comfort.

He suggested it would be unfair to represent the air-conditioning noise of an empty train heading out of its depot into humid outside conditions as typical of what passengers should expect from next Monday.

“The air-con would have been working very fast until the train reached normal temperature.”

He also believed it would have been more noticeable in an empty carriage with little background noise.

I like the fact that the engineers are working to improve the customer experience further where they can. I just hope that AT manage to start paying this much attention to the customer experience across all of their operations because if they do then there will be a bright future ahead.

Only 5 days to go till these trains start carrying fare paying passengers for the first time

SECOND EMU_7040

Photo by Patrick Reynolds

Miss out on tickets to the EMU launch?

Did you miss out on tickets to be one of the first to ride electric trains next weekend and do you want some? If so then you may be in luck. Auckland Transport have given me three double passes to give away. In the comments tell me why you think you deserve one of the passes and I’ll decide on a the winners.

One requirement is you have to have missed on on the original ticket offer so it’s not for people who just want another go. Also please specify the time you would prefer to get tickets for with trips available between 10:30am and 3:30pm.

EMU Newmarket from AT