Western line frequencies finally about to improve

Next week Auckland’s busiest rail line will finally have its frequencies improved to match the two other main lines in the region. The Western Line will change to services every 10 minutes at peak and every 20 minutes between the peaks which is an improvement from the 15/30 timetable we have at the moment. Early mornings, evenings and weekends remain at only 30 minute frequencies.

As a Western Line user I see first-hand how full the trains often get during both the peaks and off peaks, especially west of Grafton. In addition it’s also particularly noticeable how much more useful 10 minute peak services are when standing on a platform at Britomart having just missed a service and jealously watching multiple services arrive and depart on the Eastern and Southern lines.

May-16 Timetable poster

The improvement has been a long time coming after increases were originally promised to occur back in 2010 to coincide with the completion of double tracking of the western line. But that promise quietly disappeared – for what I understand are a variety of reasons such as there not being enough trains, signalling/junction limitations etc. In fact I understand there are still a number of people within AT/Transdev/Kiwirail who don’t want to see any improvement as they are concerned that Newmarket and the line between there and Britomart can’t cope.

I certainly hope that whatever issues there are but the best long term solution is of course the CRL which will mean that Western Line trains no longer need to clog up a platform at Newmarket while they clumsily turn around each trip.

It also appears AT are making a slight redesign to the timetable including just showing departures at peak as times past the hour rather than every individual service. This is something common in timetables in many cities.

May-16 Timetable western line

One thing that isn’t clear yet is just how much capacity this timetable change will add, if any. Currently most services at peak are 6-car trains however if they need to split some of those up to provide the frequency there won’t be any capacity gain.

There are a few disappointments with the timetable however.

  • There are a few positive/negative changes on trips between some stations but they largely balance themselves out, the one exception is between Britomart and Newmarket where an extra minute has been added. I understand one reason for this is to be consistent with the Southern and Onehunga line trains.
  • There is still no attempt to speed up services, especially at Newmarket where the driver end change is scheduled to take four minutes.
  • There is no change to the hours services run with the last service on weekdays still departing the city just after 10pm and still only terminating at Henderson

AT have been suggesting in the reports to their board that another new timetable is due next year for all lines which is when they’ll start making improvements to travel times. Presumably that’s also when they’ll make changes to improve interpeak frequencies which are required to be improved to match what AT have promised for the new network which goes live in South Auckland in October.

Car vs Train Off Peak

Earlier this year I did a comparison between catching a train from my local station and driving to work at peak time. This is a similar look at the journey off peak. I had arranged with some friends to meet them for lunch today in town and the experience highlights perfectly just how far we have yet to go to truly have an alternative to getting around by car.

I was meeting my friends at 12:00 near the bottom of Albert St which is just a short walk away from Britomart. As I have mentioned before I live near a train station and only have a 5-10 minute walk to get there which is great. The first thing I did was to have a quick look at the timetable shows that I was in luck as despite having a pretty crappy off peak frequency of only one train every half hour, one was due to arrive at Britomart at 12:00. Being only a couple of minutes late by the time I walked to my destination would have been ok but the real problem is at the other end where I catch the train, Sturges Rd. You see that train leaves my station at 11:13 so combined with the walk to the station, I’m looking at close to an hour all up to get into town. On top of that I also have the train fares to consider which with an AT HOP card come in at around $6 each way. I also knew I would be there for about an hour or so had a look at the first train to leave after 1pm, it was due to depart Britomart at 1:23. Add on another hour and a further $6 to get home and I’m looking at almost 2½ hours travelling and $12 all up.

By comparison my other option was to drive.  The presence of the North Western motorway means an off peak trips only takes 20-25 minutes to get to Auckland Transports downtown carpark. The new parking system introduced late last month for the city centre means that the AT controlled car parks only cost $3 per hour off peak and so knowing I would be just a little bit over I budgeted for $6 in parking costs. There would also be roughly $7 in petrol and other associated costs.

At a most simple level the decision came down to the difference between spending 2½ hours travelling and paying $12 to do so or hoping in my car spending an hour (or less) travelling and paying ~$13 in parking and fuel costs. So the costs are similar but there is a huge amount of difference in the amount of time needed for each mode. Even as someone who is very enthusiastic about public transport its very hard to justify using it in this situation (at the peak is a different story).

I like to maintain that most people are pretty rational and will make generally logical decisions so taking taking 1½ times longer to make a journey via PT is never going to be attractive. This is why it is so important that Auckland Transport works to find ways to improve PT infrastructure as a key way to make PT a more attractive option, both on and off peak. By my estimation, with the CRL my trip would have been around 35-40 minutes including the walking, combining that with the higher frequencies proposed in the RPTP and it would have made a huge difference in my decision because there is always that risk of random congestion or an accident that holds things up.

On the issue of parking though, it would have been so much easier and more useful if I could have paid for my parking with my AT HOP card. Lets hope AT can get on to that once they have got the system rolled out to buses next year and it would also be a good way to get the card into the hands of drivers making it easier for them to convert to using PT in the future.

Guest Post: The West is being won, but is the South being lost?

This is a Guest Post by regular CBT forum contributor Jodi Johnston. If any readers wish to contribute a guest post please email the admin – details under “contact us”.


For people who have seen my postings on the CBT Forum, this will all be familiar material to you all, and I do apologise that you have to see this again. For people who are not regular viewers of the CBT Forum, I hope you enjoy the following piece.

Over the past twenty years, starting with the introduction of the ex-Perth DMUs in 1993, there has been a sea change in the suburban rail system in Auckland. We have seen improvements throughout the network, and especially so on the formerly neglected Western Line, where the line has been duplicated over the last few years and the passengers have benefited from service improvements. Unfortunately, this has come to some degree at the cost of the Southern and Eastern Line which has not benefitted to the same degree in spite of having over twice the number of passengers as the Western Line. This imbalance came to a head in September 2010 when the Western Line got the benefit of four six-car SA train sets, while the Southern and Eastern Line got very little in the way of capacity improvements, with only the section between Auckland and Penrose benefitting to any degree. As the next section will show, this imbalance has been building for some time.

The Present Situation

Before launching into the main part of the piece, it would pay to look at some of the recent history around timetabling for the Southern and Eastern Line. Since September 2005, the peak timetable has essentially stayed the same for passengers south of Otahuhu. The specific times have changed slightly, a game of musical chairs has been played with rolling stock, and the stopping patterns have been tweaked, but it is relatively easy to trace the ancestry of today’s services with their 2005 predecesors. Any improvements to the service for Southern and Eastern Line passengers has largely been confined to those passengers north of Otahuhu were a large number of short runner services have been instituted, in part to deal with loadings, and in part due to media outcries.

The last additional service that was instituted south of Otahuhu was in April 2007 when a short runner service running via Glen Innes became a Limited Stop service with an origin in Pukekohe. This service was specifically started to alleviate heavy loadings on the Silver Fern, and became reasonably popular fairly quickly. The last improvement in capacity for those passengers south of Otahuhu was in July 2009 when the Silver Fern was replaced with a four-car SA train. Between 2005 and 2009, there had been limited capacity improvements for those passengers south of Otahuhu, mostly related to when the three-car SA trains were extended to become four-car SA trains in 2008.

What makes the situation all the more horrifying is the fact that four of the stations south of Otahuhu are among the busiest stations in Auckland. Papakura Station with 3333 passengers a day as of 2009 was the 3rd busiest station in Auckland; Manurewa was 4th with 3083 passengers a day; Papatoetoe was 6th with 2432 passengers a day and Middlemore was 8th with 2246 passengers a day.

Obviously raw statistics does not say much without personal observation. Before looking at that, I would note that most overseas rail and metro systems are comfortable with passengers standing for up to twenty to thirty minutes. In the case of the Southern and Eastern Line, that puts the threshold anywhere between Sylvia Park, Penrose and Middlemore for Auckland bound passengers, and between Middlemore and Puhinui for Newmarket bound passengers (for those who are interested, that puts the threshold for the Western Line anywhere between Baldwin Avenue and New Lynn for Auckland bound passengers, and between Avondale and Glen Eden for Newmarket bound passengers).

Given those parameters, looking at the services as they pass Westfield Station is a good measure of loadings on services on the Southern and Eastern Line. I took the opportunity to observe these services on a Wednesday morning peak in October prior to the end of the Second Semester, so this would be an approximate measure of loadings on a typical morning peak when workers, University students and school students are likely to use the train. Unfortunately, this day did coincide with a teacher’s strike day, so there would have been fewer school students than normal on the train services that day.

It was pretty obvious from the beginning that there currently is a strain on some of the services heading from Papakura and Pukekohe. The major problems appeared to be around the 7:03am Limited ex Pukekohe and the 7:34am ex Pukekohe, with what appeared to be a horrific loading on the former service. Some of the other services looked like they could only accommodate a few more passengers before there would be problems down the line – this is especially so of the services that run via Glen Innes which need to absorb the demand from stations further down the line.


The above observations indicated that the services with the highest loading were two services that both originated at Pukekohe. It seems strange when it is considered initially, but when you sit down and consider it, Pukekohe has to be one of the great curve balls to patronage on the Southern and Eastern Line. Since it gained a regular service to Auckland a decade ago, patronage has grown by leaps and bounds and as of 2009 was the 30th busiest station on the network with 636 passengers a day. What makes that more remarkable is that at the time the 2009 patronage count was conducted, there were only 12 services from Pukekohe per day, and 13 services to Pukekohe per day.

Even if we assume that half those passengers are going to Auckland with the other half coming from Auckland and with only two-thirds of the passengers travelling during peak, which still leaves you with an additional 200 passengers. When one considers that there are only six services available for the commuter, of which only three are viable, it is pretty clear that you are going to get about a carriage worth of additional passengers, and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that this is happening – especially with the 7:03am Limited.

The impact further along the line would also be significant. Where you would have 250 passengers on a train at Westfield on a service that originated from Papakura, that train now has over 300 passengers and given how few passengers board at Westfield and Otahuhu, it is clear that the train would have had standees from Middlemore and possibly Papatoetoe – pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable by overseas standards.

So What?

Now you are probably wondering, it is all well and good that the Southern and Eastern Line is having all these problems, but there has just been $500 million spent on the duplication of the Western Line – surely that justifies having extra capacity on peak hour services to maximise the benefit of the investment. Personally, I ask so what?

We need to remember why that $500 million was spent on the Western Line in the first place – it was spent because there was a capacity problem that could only be fixed in a limited number of ways. As the infrastructure existed prior to 2004, there was only sufficient capacity to run train services once every half an hour past Avondale, and thus there was a capacity constraint. The only available methods to fix this problem was either the full duplication of the line, the construction of additional passing loops with all their associated timetabling dilemmas, or the elimination of contra-peak services and running additional peak direction services one after the other similar to how services had been operated prior to 1993.

Therefore, the $500 million was spent in order to deal with a capacity problem and not in order to justify the allocation of a lot of extra capacity while other lines have had little in the way of increased capacity.

Other associated problems

This is not the first time that a serious misjudgement of patronage demand has occurred. With the introduction of the July 2008 timetable, the 4:15pm to Papakura via Newmarket which had been allocated a 236 seat SX train set was replaced with the 4:10pm to Pukekohe via Newmarket which was allocated a 130 seat ADL train set. The 4:15pm service had been highly popular with standees when the service left Auckland, and it should not have been all that surprising that the 4:10 service would be equally popular. It wasn’t until a passenger got injured and there was a big article on Close Up that the capacity was restored. Political interference aside, we need to consider one more reason why there would have been a misjudgement in patronage demand.

That reason of course is how our patronage figures are currently derived. Our patronage figures are solely derived from counts that are made by the onboard staff at various points on the trip. For the Southern and Eastern Line, the counts occur in the vicinity of Homai, Glen Innes and Ellerslie Stations. This not only means that patronage from some stations is missed in the monthly statistics, but it also means that patronage on each service is determined by these counts. As I have stated through this piece, the problem are those passengers who originated from Papatoetoe and Middlemore and have to stand for half an hour or more, and those passengers are not at all able to be considered when rolling stock allocations occur because, well, no-one knows how many people board.

Another concern is the honesty of the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority. When they cut capacity on the Southern and Eastern Line back in July 2008, there was absolutely no official mention of it – anywhere. It was only when passengers looked at the timetable and actually saw the rolling stock allocation that they realised that there had been a cut. Similarly, the promotions for the recent September 2010 timetable heavily mentioned an increase in seats across the network, and this could be easily read as indicating more peak hour capacity. For those passengers who have to endure a trip on the Southern Line south of Penrose or the Eastern Line, there was absolutely no increase in peak hour capacity in the morning peak. This potentially made that advertising misleading.

What needs to be done?

Throughout this piece, I have commented on the situation for the average Southern and Eastern Line passenger. I noted that since 2005, there has been virtually no change in capacity for passengers south of Otahuhu. I have noted that there are significant numbers of standees on services in the morning peak by the time they arrive at Westfield Station – and this is pushing the boundaries of what would be deemed acceptable by overseas systems. It is no good outlining problems without outlining the solutions as well.

With the February timetable change, there needs to be four six-car sets allocated to the Southern and Eastern Line. This would have the impact of increasing Southern and Eastern Line capacity by eight carriages and would help alleviate capacity problems in the period prior to electrification. This would not at all disadvantage Western Line passengers, as they would still have a net gain of four carriages on top of all the additional capacity that they obtained with the September 2010 timetable.

Based on my limited observations, I would suggest that the following morning peak services would need the additional capacity

6:54am ex Pukekohe via Glen Innes
7:03am ex Pukekohe Limited via Newmarket
7:25am ex Papakura Limited via Glen Innes
7:34am ex Pukekohe via Newmarket

In the afternoon peak, where the situation is much more comfortable, I do not have any specific suggestions. Obviously, there would either need to be a limited stop pattern to skip those stations that do not have suitable length platforms, although such a pattern should not exist for long as there is an apparent deadline of having all platform extension works completed by the middle of next year.

Other things need to be done as well to ensure that such situations are handled correctly in the future. Passenger counts need to be conducted in the vicinity of Westfield Station; this would give an idea of the number of passengers at what is a pretty critical boundary point. Advertising from Auckland Transport needs to be more honest, and while they might not want to promote capacity cuts, at the very least do not mention an increase in seats throughout the network when there isn’t an extra morning peak seat for the thousands of commuters who travel on the Southern Line south of Penrose and the Eastern Line. Another possibility might be to make service patronage data a little more publicly available. I note for instance that City Rail in Sydney released their morning and afternoon peak patronage data (can be found here, and this means that a fair comparison can be made about patronage on services and on lines.

On-time PT stats: too blunt a measurement tool?

Humantransit has a thought-provoking blog post on whether measuring “on time performance” is really the best way to gauge the effectiveness of public transport in providing what its users want and need. Here’s a couple of interesting paragraphs:

I have a great deal of sympathy for transit executives trying to deal with on-time performance, because many of the causes of delay are outside a transit agency’s control. Still, there are two major problems with the measures of “on-time performance” that prevail in the industry.

1. They are not customer-centered. They report the percentage of services that were on-time, not the percentage of riders who were. Because crowded services are more likely to be delayed, the percentage of customers who were served on-time is probably lower than the announced on-time performance figure.

2. For high-frequency, high-volume services, actual frequency matters more. Suppose that a transit line is supposed to run every 10 minutes, but every trip on the line is exactly 10 minutes late. A typical on-time performance metric (e.g. the percentage of trips that are 0-5 minutes late) will declare this situation to be total failure, 0% on-time performance. But to the customer, this situation is perfection.

For a while this year ARTA and Veolia placed significant emphasis on advertising their ‘on time’ stats – even though in the early part of the year these statistics were truly horrible for Auckland’s rail services. Yet at the very same time as rail performance was so terrible, we saw rail patronage skyrocket to record levels.

ARTA’s main response to the poor performance stats fell into the traps outlined above – too focused on the simple ‘statistic’ and not focused enough on the experience of the rider. Basically, they made the timetable slower. While a greater percentage of trains now get to their destination “on time” (in the crazy world where on time means no more than five minutes late) because they do this by simply adhering to a slower timetable, chances are that your average Western Line user (in particular) has a slower trip now than they did back when the trains were so unreliable (particularly now that the Western Line’s express trains have been removed from the timetable).

I think the points made in the Human Transit blog post are highly valid when it comes to Auckland – that what we really need to be measuring are statistics that people using the rail system find important. How long are they likely to have to wait for their train? How likely is it that their train will get them where they’re going in the time it should? How long will their trip take? While reliability – which is really all that on-time performance stats measure – is very important, so are other aspects like ensuring consistent spacing between services and trying to get the trains to travel as quickly as possible.

I suppose that the main problem I have with the current focus on “on-time performance” is that it encourages overly slow timetables. This may make the statistics look nice, as it’s pretty easy to keep to a very slow timetable, but in the end the slower you make the train trip – the more likely someone is to choose to drive instead. So perhaps we need to broaden our measurement of how good the rail service provided actually is. Perhaps we need to think more about what really matters to customers, rather than trying to find a simple measurement statistic that perversely makes our trains slower by encouraging an overly forgiving timetable.

On time performance is useful, but not in isolation and not to the cost of everything else (like speed and frequency).

Speed versus Frequency

The new train timetables that started up on September 19th have been running for almost exactly a month now. A major change in those timetables as an increase in frequency for Southern Line and (particularly) Eastern Line commuters, but a corresponding loss of almost all the express trains on the rail network. Gone went the Western Line express (which was strange considering peak time frequencies didn’t increase there and gone went most of the Southern Line peak trains.

Effectively, ARTA made a decision to prioritise frequency over speed. The problem with express trains is that they tend to catch all-stopping trains in front of them, unless you leave a large gap in the timetable or (in an ideal world) if you have dedicated tracks for express services. From next year, when we get up to having 10 minute frequencies at peak times on our three main lines, it seems somewhat unlikely that we will have any express services – because slotting them in would just be too difficult – unless we switched to something like Wellington’s timetable system, where the lines have a number of different stopping patterns, which does reduce the frequency of trains at particular stations.

There is a natural tension between high speed and high frequency, because of the issue of trains catching each other. But I do wonder whether the right approach is to focus completely on frequency at the cost of speed. Do we really need all our trains stopping at all our stations all the time? On the Western Line in particular, the inner section is painfully slow due to poor track geometry – while it also seems that the majority of patronage is from stations west of New Lynn. Would it make more sense to have every second train skip some of the lower patronage inner stations on the Western Line – like Avondale, Baldwin Ave, Morningside and Mt Eden? How much time would you gain from changing with the stopping pattern, and would it be worth the hassle (and the reduction of service from a train every 10 minutes to a train every 20 minutes at those stations)?

Personally, I think it’s important that we keep at the top of our mind the necessity that our Rapid Transit Network is, well, rapid. The average speed of trains on the Western Line is a painfully slow 30 kilometres an hour – pretty disgraceful in many respects as around half a billion dollars has been spent on upgrading this line over the past five or so years. If we had bus lanes along the Waterview section of Great North Road I am pretty sure it would be faster to catch the bus between New Lynn and the CBD at peak times than the train – something that should simply not be possible.

Of course the ultimate solution is to triple track our main lines (or quad track them). Then we have the ability to run both express and local services on the same line without having to worry about getting frequencies too high – because the faster trains could just pass the slower ones on different tracks. New York City’s subway system benefits from the express/local division enormously. But in Auckland that’s only likely on a short section of the southern line (Westfield to Wiri) any time in the near future. So really, I think we do need to have a good long think about what’s more important: speed or frequency? We also need to have a good think about what could be done to speed up our current trains (such as being more efficient when it comes to dwell times).

I don’t really know the answer here – what is more important to train catchers. Speed or frequency?

Huapai Rail – a worthy next step?

The ARC’s most recent Transport and Urban Development Committee meeting looked at the options for extending some services on the Western Line to Huapai. After the unfortunate (but not altogether unforeseeable thanks to the slowness of our trains) failure of the Helensville rail service, it seems as though some more realistic options are being looked at to extend some rail services from Waitakere township out to Huapai – a growing settlement to the northwest of Auckland.

The ARC report outlines a number of different options as well as their cost, for running trains to Huapai:
First things first, I think it’s very promising to see that we’re not likely to go with the failed Helensville model of only one train a day each way. That unfortunate experiment gave people only one option, and only catered for one type of passenger (someone working in the CBD). Having a number of different services should give people more confidence to use the service, as they know they have a range of options to get home.

As shown in the table below, adding more services vastly increases the number of people likely to use the train – because of the greater flexibility offered. It would be pointless to go to all the trouble to just attract 26 passengers, as estimated by Option 1:
As you can see, all the options require a fairly hefty subsidy (the costs are net of income from fares). But remember at the same time these are likely to be pretty long trips – so the benefits through reduced congestion are likely to be at the higher end of the $17 peak hour benefit to road users that typical rail trips provide. Taking that into account, the proposal might well have a positive benefit-cost ratio – and it would be interesting to see such an analysis undertaken.

The ARC report discusses the merits of the different options, and comes to a conclusion that I find myself agreeing with:
However, one thing that requires careful consideration is the fact that the Western Line has now lost its express train – which used to be non-stop between Newmarket/Grafton and New Lynn. This express train was the Helensville service, when that service operated. The lack of such a train means that rail trips from Huapai to Britomart are likely to be well over an hour in length – potentially reducing its attractiveness to commuters. It makes me wonder whether the decision to remove the Western Line express train was somewhat premature.

Looking through the minutes of the meeting, there is an interesting addition that I think deserves comment.
Resolution (c) adds an interesting new idea into the mix, the idea of a rail service that enables west-to-south trips and doesn’t add to the growing problem of a maxed-out Britomart in terms of its train capacity. As I have noted previously, by early next year (once Western Line trains are bumped up to 10 minute peak frequencies) Britomart will be at capacity, so it will not be possible to add any further capacity to any of the rail lines (in terms of more trains, we can of course still make the train longer) until we build the CBD rail tunnel. However, a Huapai to Tuakau (or wherever) service that doesn’t enter Britomart doesn’t add to this problem, so could be in addition to the 10 minute frequencies on the existing lines that we will be having by early next year.

It would be interesting to see how many people do change between the Western and Southern lines at Newmarket at the moment, to get some sort of gauge on the attractiveness of such a service. With a lot of workers in the west and a lot of jobs in the south (and vice versa to a lesser extent) I imagine there is the potential for such a service to be useful. But, as I noted above, the real benefit is that such a service can add capacity to the Western and Southern lines even when Britomart has been maxed out. With a train every 4-5 minutes between Newmarket and Britomart (western line plus southern line plus Onehunga line services) and an integrated ticketing system that doesn’t require extra fares to be paid, perhaps the thought of changing lines at Newmarket won’t be so horrible either.

It’s good to see some thought going into the long-term future of Auckland’s rail services, and a bit of creative thinking into how we might get around the Britomart capacity problem in the medium term while we build the CBD rail tunnel. It will be interesting to see whether this proposal advances.

Why is the Western Line so slow?

Yesterday I caught up with a bunch of fellow transport enthusiasts and we all trundled out to Swanson Station, near the end of the Western Line, to have lunch. It was a good chance for me to actually see all the Western Line (with day-passes we all caught the train out to Waitakere station after lunch and then rode it back to town), as I hadn’t been past Henderson in a great number of years. It also drove home to me just how slow the Western Line actually is. According to the timetable, a trip between Waitakere station and Britomart takes 58 minutes to cover a track that’s around 30km long – so an average speed of around 30 kph. Of course, as we know in recent months the Western Line has very much struggled to even meet this timetable, so the average speed is likely to have been even lower than 30 kph.

This incredibly low speed compares interestingly with other lines in Auckland and Wellington. The southern line, between Britomart and Papakura, is 33km long and takes 52 minutes to run – giving an average speed of around 38 kph. The eastern line is much faster again, and can complete the Westfield to Britomart run in a similar time to what the southern does: even though the track is quite a lot longer. The Pukekohe express train can actually do its 51 km trip in 54 minutes: meaning that it’s actually a faster trip than a Western Line train – even though it’s around 20 km longer! (Yes, I do realise it’s an express train.) In Wellington, the 48 km long Paraparaumu Line takes 55 minutes for an all-stopping service – an average speed of 52 kph. But perhaps most indicting is the realisation that all-stops running times on Auckland’s train system now are around 5 minutes slower than they were back in the early 1990s – despite all the investment we’ve made in the intervening time and despite the closure of a number of stations on the southern and eastern lines.

Now double tracking of the Western Line has been completed, I would have expected a significant improvement in the speed of the Western Line. The last bit of single-track, being the section between Avondale and New Lynn, was a common cause of delay – but obviously that’s no longer a problem so that should allow the trains to go a bit faster – right? Well seemingly not, as everything I have heard indicates that the next rail timetable – due to be released in September – will not “tighten up” the Western Line’s timetable to make the trains go faster. I suppose with a significant proportion of Western Line trains still struggling to even average 30 kph along its route, it would be premature to hope for a faster timetable?

I do recognise that the Western Line is challenging for trains, because it’s quite windy and therefore the trains can’t get up to top speed along much of it. However, there are still a number of things that make me think that at least 5 minutes could be shaved off the running time of this service, which when added to the 7-8 minutes that electrification is likely to save, would actually result in a pretty significant speed increase along the line. So here’s what I think could be done in the meanwhile:

  1. Eliminate the stupid 3 minute dwell at Newmarket. When Newmarket station was opened, we were promised that the end changes would be quick, because trains would have a “pilot” between Newmarket and Britomart – so the drivers wouldn’t have to change ends. Many months later and we’re still waiting. If this was brought down to a typical 30 second dwell, that’s two and a half minutes saved immediately.
  2. Speed up dwell times at stations. Yesterday was a perfect example of how time can be unnecessarily lost, as our train back into Britomart pulled into Kingsland station for some reason the doors didn’t open. The clippie looked blankly at the train manager who had to wander all the way up to the driver to tell him that he hadn’t pressed the right button to allow her to unlock the doors. Hopefully our new electric trains will have driver operated doors so that we don’t need people inside the train having to push their way through the crowds to open the doors (though I guess we might still have silly drivers who forget to push buttons to open the door). Even 15 seconds saved off each dwell would add up to a 4 minute gain across the whole line.
  3. To actually try to make the train go fast. Now this might be some slightly naive on my behalf, but for some reason it always seems as though Western Line trains just slowly chug along the line, rather than having the driver really try to push them hard to get to the next station as quickly as possible. This may be a result of the sharp bends, I don’t exactly know, but compared to every other railway line I’ve ever been on, the Western Line just seems so laid-back and unnecessarily slow. Even small gains could make a big difference here, a few seconds shaved off each trip between stations could add up to 3-4 minutes along the line as a whole.

So even with some pretty minor improvements, I actually think a huge amount of time could be saved off the running time of the Western Line. This would make a huge difference to the service’s popularity I think, and would hopefully mean that using the term “Rapid”, in Rapid Transit Network, wouldn’t feel like such a lie.

Further info on Western Line changes

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post on the changes being proposed to the Western Line’s timetable. I was critical of two aspects of these changes:

  1. I criticised the three minute lay-over at Newmarket on the grounds that it just adds to the length (time-wise) of Western Line trips, which have already been inconvenienced in terms of time compared to how things were when the Newmarket West temporary station was in operation.
  2. I criticised the PM express train skipping Newmarket, on the grounds that it would be confusing (the AM express train will stop there) and inconvenient for people living further out west who work in Newmarket (they will have to catch the all stopping train).

ARTA kindly responded to my post by providing me with a bit of further information on why the changes are being made. I think it’s worthy to share that, so that the issue can be properly examined:

The change to the afternoon limited stop service has been made on the basis that there is another train there 2 minutes afterwards, and therefore a viable alternative is available for customers. Whilst this will result in an extension to journey times for those travelling to the more westerly stations of 5 minutes overall (excluding the 2 minute later departure time from Newmarket), there is an alternative for customers.

The all stop service also has lower loadings than the current limited stop service. Figures show that over 200 passengers currently board the 5.30pm service on departure from Britomart, which when complimented by an additional 80 passengers or so at Newmarket, means that currently there are nearly 300 passengers on the service on departure from Newmarket.

In comparison, the all-stop service has approximately 150 PAX boarding at Britomart and a further 30 getting on at Newmarket, meaning that there are less than 200 passengers onboard on departure from Newmarket.

The stop at Grafton was included in the schedules of the limited stop service to provide an alternative for the 20 or so passengers who currently catch the 5.44pm departure from Boston Road (thus again easing the distribution of passengers between the two services).

The changes effective from Sunday 11 April, will help to assist in smoothing out loadings between the two services, and will potentially make the new 5.31pm service more attractive (due to increased seating availability) for customers from Britomart heading further west.

The removal of one train from the mix at Newmarket during this busy period around 5.40pm will add robustness to schedules, and improve operation through the area. Stability of timetable performance is important, and is one of the key things which these changes are seeking to achieve.

For clarity, the change to the limited stop service is only on the evening time, the morning service is not changed because we realise that in doing so would’ve resulted in a 20 minute gap in services to Newmarket on the Western Line during the busiest part of the morning peak.

Finally, we have also adjusted the most westerly stopping patterns of the limited stop service and the 5.33pm all stop service ex-Britomart. The limited stop service will now terminate at Swanson, with the 5.33pm service continuing through to Waitakere (instead of Swanson). This continues to provide a direct Newmarket to Waitakere service for customers at this time of day, albeit with an extended journey time of 5 minutes overall (excluding the 2 minute later departure time from Newmarket).

Careful thought and consideration was taken to ensure that these changes cause the minimal amount of inconvenience for customers, as we worked together with Veolia to add robustness to schedules.

As I said in my original post, it would seem as though the main driver for the change to the PM express train is so that a huge crunch on Newmarket station at around 5.40pm can be avoided. And it certainly will be a good thing to see the system not grind to a halt as the poor signalling staff have to thread a pile of trains through a junction that, contrary to what KiwiRail claim, already seems to have insufficient capacity to handle the number of trains through it that are required (goodness knows how shocking things will be in a few years time when we have many more trains running on the system). It will also be advantageous for people catching the PM express train from Britomart, as they’ll be able to avoid the Newmarket mess – and one will imagine their trips times might decrease reasonably significantly as a result of this.

Smoothing out passenger numbers has some benefits I suppose, although at the same time perhaps the 5.33pm train could have just terminated at New Lynn and used a smaller ADL train (I imagine the all-stopping train is pretty dead past New Lynn as everyone would have been on the express).

However, in the end it seems that what we really need to do is to completely overhaul the Western Line timetable so that the 5.40pm Newmarket crunch can be avoided without having to inconvenience the 80ish passengers that currently use the express from Newmarket. I guess it remains to be seen whether this change will be temporary – until the timetables are overhauled in July when the Onehunga Line will (supposedly) become operational – or whether it’s more permanent. If it is permanent then I really think we need to build that missing rail link at Newmarket that KiwiRail claimed was “unnecessary”, or do something to improve the capacity of the Newmarket junction. Otherwise we’ve just spent about $30 million on building a junction that can’t even do the job.

Tweaking the Western Line

From Sunday April 11th there are going to be some minor changes to the timetable for the Western Line. These are explained in ARTA’s media release (which I had emailed to me but doesn’t seem to have shown up on either the MAXX website or the ARTA website):

Train timetable tweaked

The Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) announced today the timetable for Western Line train services will change from Sunday 11 April.

ARTA’s General Manager, Customer Services, Mark Lambert says, “Changes to the Western Line timetable are in response to a number of factors. These include the opening of ARTA’s new station at Grafton in April, completion of double tracking between Newmarket and Boston Road stations and a general tightening up of service times. Along with further improvements in service delivery in June on completion of the final section of double tracking between Avondale and New Lynn, these improvements will assist in giving greater resilience to service performance on the western line.

Mr Lambert says, “To assist with our passenger’s journey planning, we have now included an ‘arrival’ and ‘departure’ time in the timetable for Western Line services running through Newmarket. We have included this in response to customer feedback in relation to transfer times to other services at Newmarket. Customers should note most departure and arrival times at Britomart will remain unchanged.

“Most Western Line stations en route will have their times amended by a minute or two, and customers are advised to familiarise themselves with their local station’s new departure times before these changes come into effect.

Mr Lambert said, “Customers should take the time to familiarise themselves with the new timetable which is now available. For more information, or to view the train timetable, visit maxx.co.nz or call maxx on (09) 366 6400.

Looking at the new timetable, which will be operative once Grafton Station opens (just a couple of weeks away now), the main changes seem to relate to Newmarket. The first main change is that all trains now have “arrive at Newmarket” and “depart from Newmarket” times. There’s a 3 minute gap in there, which means that unless a train is already running late, it will always wait at least 3 minutes at Newmarket before continuing on its journey. To me, that seems like an utter cop-out that has been done instead of improving how quick trains get through Newmarket – through means such as having train pilots between Newmarket and Britomart, so the drivers didn’t have to change ends (which was supposedly going to happen, according Veolia and ARTA managers I have talked to).

The second major change is that the evening express train will no longer stop at Newmarket. Once again this seems like a crazily stupid decision to make. I have caught the evening express train a couple of times and TONNES of people get onto it at Newmarket.We’ve just spent tens of millions on this new station and we’re already bypassing it with one of the most popular Western Line services, stupidity. Furthermore, to just add to the confusion the AM peak express train does still stop at Newmarket, so we can expect a lot of annoyance and confusion when the PM peak passes through Newmarket without stopping to pick up the people expecting it.

Now I know that there’s a huge problem around 5.40pm at Newmarket, with about five trains converging on Newmarket at the same time. But surely the best way to fix that is to retime the trains, rather than mess with the PM express service. This seems like yet another decision made on the rail system that will put people off catching the train, and is based more about making life easier for those operating the system rather than those using the system.

Come on ARTA, haven’t you done enough already this year to put people off using the Western Line? Must you make things even worse?

What can ARTA do about our trains?

In a typically well thought out comment on my recent post that ARTA should focus on getting the train system sorted before getting stuck into all these bizarre promotions they have going on, Nick R pointed out that I was perhaps being a little bit harsh on ARTA and that the problems being experienced by our rail system at the moment are – just like they’ve been for years – the result of decades of neglect. Furthermore, political moves have meant that ARTA appears to be receiving less money from NZTA than previously anticipated, which seems to have led to an $11 million cutback to their rail budget.

I certainly agree with Nick that the problems experienced on the rail network generally aren’t ARTA’s fault, and perhaps I was being a tad harsh on them. But certainly it seems as though things could be done quite a lot better in a number of areas – both to minimise the inconvenience of delays, to make people feel as though the various agencies involved are really trying their best to fix things up, and to also offer some hope that things will get better some time before 2013 when electrification is completed. Quite simply, I think people want to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

A good example of how to do this was shown last year when the Central Connector bus lanes were being built along Symonds Street. The construction did cause chaos and mayhem, but there was pretty good signage around explaining what was going on, people knew well in advance when the connector would be open and what benefits it would bring. In particular I remember a sign that read “Road Works Today so our Roads Work Tomorrow” which I thought was quite clever.

And there is a lot for rail passengers to look forwards to in the next few months. Next month Grafton station will open, which means that the stretch of single-track between Newmarket and Boston Road will be history. This should improve reliability of the Western Line quite significantly. Beyond that, in July the Onehunga Line will supposedly open (I’ll believe it when I see the station under construction) opening up a whole new corner of Auckland to the rail system. Later in the year, around September/October the New Lynn station will be completed – meaning the complete elimination of single-track on the Western Line. Oh, and some time in there the new Avondale station will open in a far more convenient location to the town centre.

It also seems as though in July we’ll see a new and improved rail timetable, perhaps even with 10 minute frequencies on the Southern and Eastern lines at peak hour (that’s the rumour I’ve heard anyway). Hopefully we’ll also see trains running later at nights, and more weekend services on the Western Line in particular (this might only come after double-tracking is completed in October). Beyond that, the Manukau Branch Line will open some time next year.

The point being that there is a lot to look forward to, and also that many of these improvements (such as the elimination of stretches of single-track on the Western Line) will lead to greater reliability on the rail system. Yet outside of a pretty small circle of transport nerds like myself, I don’t know how many people know how close we are to completing many projects that have been going on for years now. They’re also unlikely to know about timetable improvements or anything like that. They can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I also think that ARTA needs to get together with KiwiRail and Veolia to work out exactly what’s causing the problems that seem to have been plaguing the rail system throughout this year. Obviously some of the problems won’t have an easy solution, but surely some of them might and effort should be going into eliminating those small issues. Even if we can reduce the number of problems by 20%, that’s well worth the effort. And ARTA should tell us about all of this, they should let the customer know that they’re working hard to fix the issues: that KiwiRail has analysed exactly where points failures occur most frequently and is doing something about it; that Veolia and ARTA are working to identify their most unreliable trains and using them as infrequently as possible or undertaking additional maintenance to reduce the number of mechanical faults; or ensuring that when staff on a train apologise for a delay they actually do so in a way that sounds like they mean it.

It’s annoying enough to experience problems on the rail network, but feeling as though none of the agencies responsible give a damn is like adding insult to injury. For this approach to work it has to be genuine though, ARTA really does have to get together with KiwiRail and identify why there are over 200 points failures on the Auckland rail network each year and establish a process of doing something to reduce this number, they really do have to find ways to communicate better to passengers when things are going wrong, how long the delay will be, what other options people have and so forth. Ultimately, I do believe that ARTA cares about its passengers – but they need to show that better.

What do others think? What could ARTA do better here, aside from the obvious of ensuring that the problems didn’t happen in the first place?