Over the last few years we have been concerned the rail network failed to meet its patronage targets. A key reason for this would be the failure of Auckland Transport to implement rail frequency improvements over the past few years. With the start of EMU services this week it is surely time to start increasing frequencies. First though a quick look back at what happened to the planned improvements.
In 2006 ARTA promised the frequency of the western line would increase to a train every 10 minutes in the peak.
She says when the double-tracking of the Western Line is finished in 2009, train frequency will increase to a service every 10 minutes during peak times.
I also remember this being said a few years later not long before double tracking was completed.
Back in December 2011 Auckland Transport highlighted a number of proposed rail frequency increases that could be achieved with the diesel rolling stock:
-Introduction of train services to Manukau, following the completion of track and signalling works by KiwiRail in the second half of 2011. Initial service offering will be 3 trains an hour during the peak and two trains an hour at all other times.
-Introduction of 6 trains an hour from Henderson during the peak Monday to Friday on the Western Line. The infrastructure works to allow this level of service were completed in August 2010 and patronage has now grown to a level that warrants this service capacity.
-Western Line services will operate a half-hourly service between Swanson and Britomart during the core of the day on both Saturdays and Sundays.
-Onehunga Line services will be increased to half-hourly throughout the day and at a weekend, to accommodate further growth.
-Increased frequency of services from Pukekohe to every 60 minutes during the day midweek in response to customer demand.
Some of these frequency increases have been achieved such as 30 minute weekend services on the Western Line and services every 60 minutes during weekdays to Pukekohe. However 2.5 years on we still have hourly off-peak services to Manukau, 15 minute peak frequency on the Western line and hourly Onehunga services.
It is difficult to figure out what happened to these service improvements. Auckland Transport Board papers suggested they were to be discussed at a March 2012 meeting, but this was is a closed sessions and the documents have not been made public.
Again in August 2013, in one of my first posts on Transportblog I highlighted an Auckland Council report that suggested a number of frequency increases that could help meet patronage targets. It included this handy summary of the aforementioned issues:
The completion of the interim train fleet took place in 2010. Since then, some limited improvements have been able to be made to rail services, such as running key peak western line trains with 6-car sets; commissioning the Manukau Branch Line and improving interpeak services to Pukekohe, through the reallocation of existing rolling stock to best match supply and demand. However, no new capacity will be able to be added until the start of the commissioning of the electric train fleet in April 2014. This means that since 2010, patronage growth has been constrained by the inability to add peak capacity.
This report made a number of suggestions for how Auckland Transport could increase rail services and thus increase rail patronage.
Improved interpeak and weekend rail services. As noted above, until electric trains start entering service from April 2014, there will be no increase in peak train capacity. International research shows that the improvement of non-peak train services can lead to stronger increases in patronage than peak capacity improvements. Substantial improvements to non-peak service levels form part of the roll out of electric trains. There may be opportunities to advance non-peak service improvements in advance of electrification such as extending Sunday train services west of Henderson (which currently has no Sunday train service) and improving weekend frequencies to half-hourly.
Since this report we have had half hourly frequencies and Sunday trains to Swanson added, however none of the other earlier suggestions have been actioned.
Some people may be thinking, what is the problem, electric trains will solve all of the issues. This is true in some sense. If AT sticks to the Regional Public Transport Plan they produced then by the end of the rollout in 2015 we should have 10 minute peak services and 15 minute off peak and weekend services on all lines except Onehunga. This is import because improved frequency is considered one of t he biggest drivers of patronage. However the EMU rollout will not be complete until ‘Mid/Late 2015’ which is anywhere from 12 to 18 months away. It is essential that we keep making moves in the short term to increase patronage, especially with the pressure from the government over patronage targets for the City Rail Link.
EMU at Onehunga on Monday
While the EMU’s have now been launched on the Onehunga line , they are still operating on their old hourly off-peak timetable. This seems very strange considering the advertising and public relations effort that is surrounding the launch of the trains. It will not send a very good message if people new to rail in Auckland turn up to the ride the EMU but have to wait 55 minutes. Hopefully soon from Auckland Transport we will see a new, faster timetable with 30 minute frequencies all day, 7 days a week. Next up for EMU addition is the Manukau Line, probably in September. It would be great to see frequency increases at the same time, certainly moving to a 30 minute service from Manukau during the day, which will give a service every 15 minutes all day along the main Eastern Line, rather than the current stupid 30-10-20 arrangement. There has also been some suggestions from Auckland Transport that we would see full EMU service on the weekends, which would be very exciting. This would benefit from improved timetabling as well, dependent of course on if we had enough EMU’s in the country.
While the the Western line will be the last to be electrified, I would hope that the diesel rolling stock deemed surplus from EMU operations was used to increase capacity on the services that remained dieselised. This would be a great time to increase Western Line frequency to every 10 minutes at peak, and every 15 minutes all day. Another good area for improvement is evening services which currently finish ridiculously early. Currently the last Western Line train leaves Britomart at 9.53pm, Onehunga at 9.30pm, Southern Line at 10.10pm and Eastern Line at 10.40pm though this only runs to Otahuhu. The latest train should be pushed back at least past 11pm. This can be done with diesel operation on the Western and Southern Line, and in tandem with EMU timetable improvements on the Eastern and Onehunga lines.
The focus for improvements to public transport around Onehunga in recent years has been in the form of trains with services reinstated to the town centre back in 2010 after being stopped 37 years previously. The station has since been wired up and is now ready and waiting for our new electric trains to arrive. Positively patronage at the station has also been steadily improving and combined with the station at Te Papapa, is likely to exceed 2016 level of patronage that was predicted when the station was built.
But while the trains have been added, not a lot of effort had gone into the local bus infrastructure until now. Not far from the train station is the Onehunga Transport centre which is a bus interchange. It was previously not very inviting and I would say actively worked to put people off using buses. It had very little seating or shelter, the footpaths were quite narrow. Further while the bricks probably looked good when they were first installed, they come across as tatty and dull in the streetview image below.
On Sunday the transport centre officially reopened after a makeover and it looks much better. These images are courtesy of Auckland Transport.
The upgrade fixed the issues mentioned above as well as a few others. One thing I’m not that impressed with however is the amount of clutter on the footpath. on this short stretch of road I count at least 5 poles with what I assume are no parking or bus stop signs on them, there is a rubbish bin, at least one real time sign and a light pole. I do however really like the look of the bus shelters and also added another feature that doesn’t appear obvious at first, Kassel kerbs.
These special kerbs we invented in the German city of Kassel back in the mid-90s as a way to improve the customer experience of people using modern low floor buses, especially for those who are disabled. It is actually quite a simple concept as it is just a concaved kerb. The driver moves into the kerb which helps to keep the bus the right distance from the footpath. The kerb is also slightly higher than normal so combined with being closer to the footpath, means that the gap between it and the bus is much smaller than it would otherwise be. It is therefore much easier for people to board which can speed up dwell times. In many ways it is similar to having a level boarding of trains like we will have with the low floor carriage in our new EMUs. I believe that they have also been used at a few other locations and that there is now a local manufacturer of them so hopefully they can eventually be rolled out to all bus stops. Here is a little video about them
Starting this Sunday a new service will be calling at the upgraded transport centre. The current 380 Airporter service which goes between Manukau and the Airport is being extended to Onehunga although oddly not all services. The route is actually identified in the RPTP as a frequent route meaning it will eventually operate with at least 15 minute frequencies but I guess that will come later as the new bus network starts to be properly rolled out. Here is the route.
The buses running this route have received the AT branding similar to the Northern Express (although the logo is smaller). The bright orange is certainly eye catching and perhaps suggests that buses on each of the frequent network buses will get route specific colouring.
A few years ago there was a lot of noise an complaining about Onehunga. At first it was because almost a year after it had originally promised to be operating, the station hadn’t even been started. Then once it was built the issue was that the platforms were built at only 55m long, too short for our future electric trains which we already knew would be around 70m long. Of course there was a lot of jumping up and down by many saying how it was another example of poor planning in Auckland however there actually turned out to be a fairly logical explanation for it. The simple version of it was that get all of the consents and agreements to build it right the first time would have taken months, if not years longer so the decision was made to build what they could and start the services sooner.
Well now the consents and other issue have been sorted out so AT have lengthened the platforms so that they can handle our new trains. I took a trip out there yesterday to have a look and it appears the job is all finished so here are some photos.
And at the other end of the station
But that wasn’t the only addition to the station, there are also some public toilets being installed which is something needed at more stations
While on the topic of Onehunga, it is probably worth pointing out another thing mentioned a few years ago about it, its patronage forecasts. The forecasts most likely come from the same models that are used to predict how well things like the CRL will be use. Here is what ARTA said in July 3020 about patronage at Onehunga:
ARTA’s spokesperson, Sharon Hunter said, “Passenger travel shows patronage on the line from September 2010 for the two hours at morning peak, from 7am to 9am, is estimated to be approximately 100 people boarding at Onehunga. This compares with 3,600 people alighting at Britomart during the morning peak period.
Now I don’t know exactly how many board during the morning peak but I have heard stories of up around 50-60 on some trains alone. It would be really interesting to see how those previous estimates have worked out in reality as I would suspect they way underestimate what is happening in reality. That is something that seems to be a common feature with Public Transport yet the opposite is true for vehicle traffic which is constantly overestimated.
Edit: Sharon got in touch with me and provided this information:
The most recent survey counted 170 passengers boarding at Onehunga in the morning two-hour peak with 60+ boarding the most popular service (7:45am departure). For a full weekday about 400 passenger were counted using Onehunga to board trains. In overall rankings that is about the same as Orakei and Meadowbank (i.e. ranked about 30th out of 42 stations).
Interestingly in terms of projections, Te Papapa is exceeding expectations with more than 100 boardings counted in the morning 2-hour peak period. The combined effect of Onehunga + Te Papapa is generating around 280 passengers per day in the morning two-hour peak versus the 2016 modelled 360 so it is heading in the right direction.
A few days back the Human Transit blog superbly outlined the basics of designing bus routes – using Halifax in Nova Scotia as the example. There are some excellent “basics” outlined in that post: the need to identify choke points, the need to have good “anchors” at each end of your route, the benefits of bouncing routes off at right-angles once you reach the edge of a grid system and so forth. What seemed perhaps most obvious of all is how each route is designed to achieve a number of different things – not just to drag various people from around the suburbs and take them into the city before turning around and doing the same thing. The first route the blog post looks at is perhaps the best example of this:
While the whole peninsula is fairly high density, the main patronage attractors are within the various shaded areas – education facilities, employment zones, hospitals and so forth. The red circles represent the chokepoints on entering the island and the “T” represents transfer points. What I like about this route is how – let’s say during the morning peak – there would be strong flows of passengers both ways along the route – because it doesn’t simply terminate in the middle of town and then head out again, it passes through the city. With transfer points at both ends of the route you would have a lot of passengers on the bus right to the end of the line (which is good for efficiency) and because it keeps to a very low number of streets it’s a simple and easily understood route.
You would struggle to find too many routes like this in Auckland. Most bus routes seem to very much “peter out” at their suburban terminus, while through-routes are extremely rare as well. This means that our system has huge inefficiencies, in the form of empty buses close to the end of their runs, and then by having to run many ‘empties’ from the city centre terminus back to the start of the route.
When I wrote this post about the possibility of using the Wellesley Street corridor for most North Shore buses, there was a lot of interesting discussion in the comments about sending some of those North Shore buses further south. The 881 service from the North Shore to Newmarket via the University and Hospital is apparently very popular – and many have thought that it might make sense for the Northern Express to continue to Newmarket. Personally I view the NEX as part of the “Rapid Transit Network” and see no point in duplicating RTNs between Britomart and Newmarket (we have the train line of course), so I would do things another way.
My route, as shown below, basically brings two routes together: the main ‘non-busway’ QTN route on the North Shore and the future Manukau Road b.line service between Onehunga and the city.
If we start with the ends of the routes, we have two obvious major transfer points: Onehunga in the south and Constellation bus station in the north. As I outlined in my blog post about Mangere bus routes, I see most of them feeding into Onehunga in the long run – allowing transfers onto train for the fastest Onehunga-downtown trips – or onto a Manukau Road b.line for intermediary trips. Manukau Road is a major arterial that clearly requires a high frequency bus corridor in just the same way as Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Road and others do.
In the north, while the busway will obviously be used for most trips heading to or from the city, there will similarly always be the need for a service linking together all the town centres and various trip generators on the North Shore. So if we’re going to need both these routes – primarily not for fast trips to the city centre from outlying areas but for trips along the route, for trips that may occur outside the peaks, for trips in the reverse peak direction and so forth – why not join these two routes up so we offer even more options? The route above would allow one to travel from Takapuna to Epsom, or from Royal Oak to Milford – but without the inefficiency that a normal ‘everywhere-to-everywhere’ style of service pattern tends to generate. Run this route at 10 minute frequencies off-peak and you create a really strong north-south bus corridor across the whole city that can be useful for a vast number of different trips.
I suppose that on the down side it would be a fairly long route and with that comes potential for unreliability. But because there would hopefully be enough patronage generated by the route (in both directions and right to the ends of it) it should be able to support high enough frequencies that make unreliability less of an issue.
This is quite a dramatically different way to operate a bus route in Auckland. Do people think it would work? It seems critical to me that it has a fast route through the city centre – so people travelling from Takapuna to Epsom don’t spend half their lives stuck at traffic lights downtown – but it seems potentially a pretty efficient way to provide for a lot of different potential trip options.
One of the main differences between the calculated benefits of the Ministry of Transport’s review of the City Rail Link project and the revised analysis undertaken by Auckland Council and Auckland Transport of the project depends on the extent to which many of the current “long-haul” bus services are turned into rail feeder buses. There’s a clear logic behind this: the more bus routes you curtail into feeding the rail system the more rail passengers you generate and therefore the greater pressure you put on the rail system (hence the greater need for the rail tunnel). This is not rocket science, or a unique proposition: around 70% of riders on the Toronto Subway arrive at their station on the bus.
However, historically we have been utterly pathetic at co-ordinating buses with trains: not only in terms of ticketing (which is finally being sorted out) but also in terms of timing, the physical ease of transfering between the two and so forth. This has led to multiple stupid situations where we’re subsidising buses and trains to complete basically the same journey – the public purse paying for parallel routes. Incredibly stupid, incredibly inefficient. Furthermore, by making it nigh on impossible to transfer, we actually leave many in the outer suburbs with stupidly long bus trips to take.
Let’s take a comparison of peak time train and bus trips between four obvious transfer points around Auckland – New Lynn, Panmure, Onehunga and Manukau City (well, Manukau from February next year when the station opens): You can see for many of these trips the train is enormously faster than the bus – taking less than half the time in the case of an Onehunga to Britomart trip (no wonder the Onehunga Line’s so popular!) Now while we will obviously need to continue to run buses between downtown and these various points – to pick people up in between and deliver them to intermediary locations, it seems utterly crazy that (for example) we run buses from Howick to town, which pass right by Panmure station. Surely if every bus from east of the Tamaki River terminated at either Panmure or Ellerslie, with their passengers transfering onto the train we would be able to vastly improve frequencies of buses using the same resources (shorter trips means more trips per hour), while at the same time giving people a much faster trip to where they’re going. It just seems so obvious. Cut every bus serving the Mangere area at Onehunga so people transfer onto the train there for the much faster ride. The shorter bus trips mean that the same resources can go into much higher frequency feeder services, so people don’t have to wait as long for the bus. Do the same with all buses west of New Lynn – and possibly for buses west of Henderson you could have a further transfer point. Some of the more recent changes to Green Bay buses incorporated elements of this – although until we have integrated ticketing there will probably be a relatively limited market for it: You can do the same south of Manukau (as well as having either Otahuhu or Westfield being a further transfer station for areas around the Southern Line north of Manukau). Through this process not only do we end up with a far more efficient transport system, much faster trips for passengers, but the booming rail patronage will make it more and more obvious to Central Government how essential the City Rail Link project is. It’s a win-win all around.
But what’s the bet Auckland Transport’s too scared and disorganised to actually implement any of this?
I was pretty gutted to miss it, but on Saturday the Onehunga Line reopened to passenger trains for the first time in 37 years. Jon C at Aucklandtrains has extensive coverage, including photos, of the opening. It seems like the opening event went incredibly well, with a huge crowd turnout. Furthermore, mentions of rail to the airport were very popularly received.
The NZ Herald also had an article, here are some extracts:
Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, a long-time proponent of reopening the Onehunga line to passengers, said the huge turnout yesterday indicated a seachange in the way Aucklanders viewed rail passenger transport.
Referring to the Onehunga and New Lynn rail developments, he said people would look back on September 2010 as the day the phrase “Aucklanders never get out of their cars” lost its meaning.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce said the developments were a step towards Auckland becoming an “efficient and prosperous world class city”.
New network-wide timetables began yesterday, with more than 400 extra train trips a week across Auckland, about a 25 per cent increase in services according to ARTA chairman Rabin Rabindran.
I’m very much looking forward to catching the train out to Onehunga on the weekend to do shopping at DressSmart, and to check out the awesome second hand bookshop there. Will certainly beat trying to find parking.
I managed to head out to Onehunga today and take some photos of the train station, which has now been largely completed. The site was a bit of a “mud-fest” as there has been so much rain in the last few days, but there has certainly been massive progress since I was last there. Here’s what the general site looks like now:As you can see in the photo above it’s a fairly basic station, but fits in nicely with the design of other stations around Auckland.The photo above looks towards the southern end of the station. It’s at this end where there was some recent debate about why the platform wasn’t made longer. My understanding is that some arcane rail rule meant that the end of the tracks in this spot had to be a certain number of metres back from a little, barely formed access road (which can be seen better in a later photo). The issue can be resolved oddly enough by making the little access road go over the tracks, meaning that there’s certainly potential for the platform to be easily extended in this direction in the future. In this area we will be seeing a Park and Ride constructed in the next month or two. It won’t be finished by the time the station opens, but shouldn’t be too far behind that. While I’m mixed on Park and Rides in general (particularly in town centres such as Onehunga) I think it will be useful in “kick-starting” patronage on this line. I imagine in the future this part of the site could be redeveloped into a large-scale mixed-use development. But the current economic conditions means that might be a while away. The photo above shows more clearly the access path I discussed earlier, which skirts around just next to the wooden retaining wall. I understand that the station platforms can be extended in this direction fairly significantly when required. The extra 20m available here should make it possible for three-car electric train sets to service the Onehunga Line.This photo shows the station platform itself. As I said earlier it’s pretty basic but should suffice. I really look forward to catching a train from here.The above photo shows that there is some gap between the station platform and the apartment building, which I understand to be around 14 metres. The platform could also potentially be extended in this direction, although consenting might be a bit trickier given the effects of that on the apartment dwellers.
It seems as though ARTA got caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place with this station, in that they were being pressured (and quite rightly so given the many many delays to the opening date of the Onehunga Line) to get the station open as quickly as possible, while at the same time to build the station platforms to their full length would have required a more lengthy consenting process. I think in the end ARTA has made the right decision – at least get the station open now with a platform long enough to cope with two-car trains. I just hope that by the time we shift to three-car electric trains as the shortest train type we have, the consenting issues will have been resolved and extending the platform will be possible.
Opening day is September 18th and there will apparently be a steam train hired for the event. I’m actually a bit gutted that I’ll miss it as I’ll be out of the country at the time.
At times I do wonder why it’s so damn difficult to get public transport projects in Auckland right. After the numerous stuff-ups that surrounded the opening of the Newmarket station, we’ve had a reasonably good run in recent times (although the huge celebration to open the partially finished extension to the previously upgraded Kingsland station was a bit strange). Grafton station, Avondale station and New Lynn station openings have all progressed significantly or been completed without many problems. In fact, after a lot of work and not much to show for it throughout 2009, so far this year we have seen great progress on Auckland’s rail system.
Unfortunately, it appears as though the good old “whatever can be stuffed up will be stuffed up” adage has returned to the Onehunga Line. After it being so damn difficult to get any progress on the construction of the Onehunga railway station, it now appears as though the platforms are being constructed too short to take the standard configuration of the electric trains that are due to arrive here from 2013 onwards. Here’s parts of the article from the NZ Herald today on the issue:
Auckland rail officials have been accused of “incompetence on a grand scale” for building a railway platform too short for the trains it will serve.
Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee is furious with the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (Arta), after discovering a 55-metre platform being built for the long-awaited Onehunga station will be at least 15m too short for three-car electric units due in service from mid-2013.
“They’ve gone ahead and built this without future-proofing for electrification. The people of Onehunga have been short-changed.
“They haven’t even present-proofed it – it’s just sheer incompetence.
“Why should Onehunga of all the stations of Auckland be made into a Lilliput station?”
Arta – an ARC subsidiary – has confirmed Onehunga’s platform will fall short of the 70 metres required to load three-car electric trains, and says special arrangements may have to be made for trains running between Onehunga and Britomart to be shorter than for the rest of the Auckland network.
Authority communications manager Sharon Hunter said last night that an alternative after electrification could be to run standard-length trains into Onehunga, but to load only two of the three cars.
Patronage modelling indicated that two-car diesel trains would be enough to launch an Onehunga passenger service in September, but an extension of the platform would be considered if future demand called for it, she said.
Although the regional council spent about $8 million buying an 0.8 hectare site off the southern end of Onehunga Mall for the station, and associated “transit-oriented development” projects, Ms Hunter said Auckland City consent conditions and other constraints meant a 55m platform was the longest structure able to be built there “in the timeframe”.
The conditions required new railway lines to be at least 14m away from apartment blocks off Princes St, to meet noise and vibration limits.
Allowances also had to be made for a potential rail extension for freight trains to Onehunga’s port, and to maintain vehicle access to a large electricity pylon.
Now I must admit that when I was originally told that the platform would only be long enough to take two-car trains I didn’t immediately go “but the electric trains will be at least three cars long”. After a bit more thought on the issue, and some discussion with friends, the sillyness of creating a platform so short that it can’t handle the trains you’re going to be getting within the next three years seemed to come clear.
The particularly strange thing is that there appears to be plenty of room on the site to extend the platform in the opposite direction to the apartment building (credit for photo here): It seems like there’d be heaps of room to extend the platform further to the left of the photo. Remember we’re only talking about 15 metres here.
ARTA’s justification for the really short platform seems to be largely based on what seems to be incredibly pessimistic patronage forecasts (they never seem to have thought the line will be a success, which is odd as I think it will be a surprising success). Here’s a part of ARTA’s response:
Ms Hunter said patronage studies suggested there would be about 160 passengers using the station between 7am and 9am, for which two cars would be enough.
The Onehunga line, which has not been used by passenger trains for decades, will open on September 19. The line goes from Onehunga to Britomart, joining the existing southern line at Penrose.
Surely it wouldn’t have been difficult or expensive to make the platform a mere 15 metres longer? Well I guess the good news is that we have three years to sort this out before the electric trains arrive.
Please let this be the last stuff-up for the Onehunga Line.
At long last, today we finally have some visible work going on constructing the Onehunga Station. I dropped by to take a few photos:
The beginnings of a platform
Some pretty grunty looking machinery there digging out the ground a bit where the track will be laid
Information on the hazards within the site
It’s a fairly big site that the rather small station will sit on. A good opportunity for park and ride in the short term and a high-density transit-oriented development in the longer term I think
Work was proceeding at a pretty terrific pace while I was there. I wonder how long it'll take to complete the station?
I must say there was a time when I was worried if the Onehunga Line was ever going to happen, that it might just randomly disappear off ARTA’s list of “to do” projects. I am very glad to see this progress happening, and I really look forward to the station opening in a few months’ time.