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.
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).
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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?
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?