Guest Post: EMUs Not Much Faster Than Steam

This is a guest post by Robert Finley, a qualified Civil Engineer with a lifelong interest in trains and their operation in both New Zealand and overseas. He has photographed steam trains on most of New Zealand’s rail network in his travels.

So you think Auckland’s new trains are a bit slow and perhaps they’re not all that they’re cracked up to be?  Well in some ways you’re right since some services are slower than some of the steam trains of 50 years ago!

A direct comparison of the timings of the new Electric Multiple Units (EMU) with the timings of steam hauled trains in the early 1960s reveals some interesting facts. The comparison was made with a train service that was often hauled by a steam locomotive;  scheduled to depart from Papatoetoe at 8.05 am and arrive at the old Auckland station platforms (where spare EMUs are now parked)  at 8.42 having traversed what is now called the Eastern Line through Panmure.

Steam train leaving Papatoetoe station. Photo Robert Finley

Steam Train Service

This service – for the purists, train No 112 – actually originated from Mercer, stopping at all stations. It was therefore considered a long distance train thus requiring steam heating especially in winter and thus the necessity of steam locomotive haulage. Diesel locos were also used and, while the writer does not have many details of the diesel performance, those that exist are noticeably slower than steam.

Steam locomotives used were normally the 10 year old JA class with the occasional older J class. The train consist was usually 4-5 steel panelled carriages with a guard’s van, although sometimes timber sided cars were used. This service was very popular as it enabled people to reach city offices by 9 am using the very efficient trolley bus service that was waiting for every train. The number of passengers on this steam train service would be similar to that on recent EMU runs.

The writer was a regular traveller on this service and recorded, over about 30 different runs, the actual start and stop times at every station.

However to enable direct comparison with current trains some timing adjustments are necessary due to the changed configuration of the current network:-

  • Two stations do not now exist, Mangere and Tamaki. Thus it is necessary to deduct from the overall time not only the actual time stopped here, but also the associated acceleration and deceleration (acc/dec) required;
  • Sylvia Park and Panmure stations have been relocated but no adjustment to overall timings are required
  • Timings for the EMU’s arrival into Auckland are taken as if the EMU had stopped opposite the old platforms, now known as the Strand station, as well as at Britomart itself.


EMU Trains

As the writer is not now a regular user of these services,  7 different runs were made in the latter part of 2015, generally in the mornings.  Although a smaller sample, the results were surprisingly consistent and are therefore considered sufficient  be statistically significant.

The average overall  time from Papatoetoe station to the old Strand station platforms for the EMU trains was 29m 50s and the average running time was 23m 11s. The total stopped time for 8 stops was 6m 39s, or an average of 50s.

Summary Comparison

Comparison has been made of both the overall time and the actual running time from departing Papatoetoe to arrival at The Strand.

#   measured as average of actual times

##   some services scheduled at 31 min and some at 33 min

The average adjusted running time (i.e. the time the train was in motion) for the steam service was 27m 32s compared to the current day EMU service of 23m 11s – a saving of 4m 21s . But the average adjusted overall  time for the steam service was 30m 41s and for the EMU service was 29m 50s – just 51 seconds faster.

So the average overall EMU time is 29m 50s and the fastest steam time was 29m 06s – 44s faster! In fact, about  ¼ of the steam runs bettered that average EMU time. Furthermore, the fastest steam run was even quicker than the currently scheduled EMU time, adjusted for the Britomart-Strand timing.

Side By Side Comparison

Two typical runs are compared side by side in the following table.

Dwell Time

It should be very clear that the reason for the lacklustre performance of our EMU fleet lies almost entirely with the dwell times at stations. The average time that the EMU trains are stationary is more than double that of steam hauled trains!

But there are also permanent and temporary speed restrictions, slows and general delays caused by signals, track, points condition and other effects – I counted at least 5 such restrictions on one run.

In steam hauled trains, passengers had to climb up steps, probably gripping a filthy handrail, possibly even having to open the gate on the car platform and almost certainly opening the door into the car itself. Nevertheless, some total stopped times of just 7-12 secs at some stations were often recorded. This, of course, required a considerable degree of alacrity on the part of the entire train crew to ensure that passengers were hustled on and off and the train restarted rapidly, ensuring the utmost efficiency in order to meet or improve on the timetable. On one famous occasion, a steam run left Papatoetoe 10 minutes late and arrived in Newmarket on time!

In an EMU, you just walk straight in without touching anything except perhaps the door button. But passengers are to blame for some of the delay too – they just meander along the platform towards any old door instead of getting into the nearest one, likewise when alighting they just stroll to the door. These people would just get left behind in London!  A massive education program for passengers must be implemented. Incidentally, the same lackadaisical approach has a massive effect on the running of the whole AT bus system.

Analysis shows that on average it takes an average of 10.3s for the doors to fully open after a train has stopped. There is  5 secs after the actual stop before the green button light even comes on and assuming someone pushes the button immediately, there is a further 5 secs before doors are fully open.

It then takes an average of 22.5 secs from when the main doors close before the train moves. The Train Manager checks that everyone is on or off and closes the main doors. He then gazes around at the scenery and then closes his door, and the train still doesn’t move.

So there is at least 33 secs of dead time at every single stop.

But not only is the overall service slow, the EMU’s can not even meet their own timetable. For the 7 (off peak) runs the average schedule lateness departing Papatoetoe was 120 secs. Not one single run was able to recover this and in fact all lost further time to arrive at Britomart an average of 3min 19 sec late.  If I had been  wanting to transfer to a Penrose train – due to leave 2 mins after scheduled arrival from the Eastern line I would have missed it on every occasion.  Does the small army of clipboard wielders at Britomart monitor this situation? If not, what do they do?

Incidentally, some recent  check runs indicate that there has been no change in these basic operating parameters

In the same era as these steam services were running, there was also a train that left Auckland at 5.25 pm and ran via Panmure  non-stop to Otahuhu and thence to Papakura. It, too, was frequently hauled by a steam (tank) loco and provided a schedule of just 19 mins compared with the current EMU service of about 24 mins.

Why does AT not run some non or limited stop services at peak times? Other railway operations can manage this. With the huge amount of money spent on upgrading the whole metropolitan signalling system I cannot believe that the train control system is incapable of this.

How do Other Systems Perform?

Is this typical of railway operations elsewhere?  In Brisbane, the door light comes on when you press the button as you approach the station and the doors open immediately the train stops. The average time from the doors closing to the train moving is 4 secs.

In Wellington it averages 7 secs and if it took any longer on the London Underground, the whole city would grind to a halt! And in Mumbai they don’t even bother to close the doors at all – its not certain that they even have any doors!

Adelaide, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. There the time lapse from doors closing is so short one would need a very accurate system to measure it – it is almost instantaneous. The Adelaide EMU’s are of almost identical configuration and age to the Auckland EMU’s. They cover  36 km from Adelaide to Seaford in 52 minutes with 22 intermediate stops. Some peak services make just 5 stops with a time of 38 minutes.

Trains from Britomart to Papakura cover 31.5 km  in 53 minutes with just 14 intermediate stops.

A measure of performance might be ‘distance x no of stops over time’.  Thus Adelaide’s performance factor is 15.2 while Auckland’s is 8.3.  Go figure!

Further, on some Adelaide trains where no passengers board or alight, the total dwell time at a station can be as short as 8 secs. There is no conductor, guard or train manager apart from the occasional ticket inspectors. The driver is in complete control, he has cameras and platform mirrors at his disposal to monitor the progress of passengers and leaves as soon as he is ready. Furthermore, if a wheelchair passenger needs to board, they wait at the marked spot on the platform which correlates to the front door of the train, and the driver gets out of his compartment and places the ramp onto the platform! There are also no security staff on trains or at stations.


The new Auckland trains are quiet, smart, smooth, comfortable (if you don’t have long legs!), clean and brisk in starting and stopping.

But there is also clearly something drastically wrong with either  the specification, design or construction of the EMU’s or, most likely, Auckland Transport’s operation of them. Either AT does not recognise it has a problem or, if it does, is unable or unwilling to rectify it.

So, with respect to the extended door closing and opening durations it seems most likely this feature is a result of AT’s specification and operation of the trains.  What is the reason for it, given that no other metro transit system appears to have it?

Is there some other ulterior motive for this feature?

And, finally, how is AT proposing to rectify this appalling situation? This must be rectified for optimum performance of these otherwise very efficient EMU’s.

Has anyone from AT ever been to other metro operations to see how they are run? Is anyone at AT aware of just how bad the performance of these new trains really is? If AT cannot even organise any of these matters  it does not bode well for managing the added complexities and options once the City Rail Loop is built.

The new trains are little faster overall than not only the diesel trains they replaced, but also the steam trains that preceded them! So come on Auckland Transport, how about you see if you can get your fancy new trains to get into town faster than a steam train!