There are two urban  rail systems in New Zealand: Auckland’s and Wellington’s. The two systems are quite different in many senses, but they provide some useful comparisons.

1) Diesel trains
2) Three lines
3) No inter-city services (beyond Pukekohe and apart form the Overlander)
4) Patronage of around 8 million passengers a year
5) Public subsidies of around $7 per rail trip

1) Electric trains (except for Wairarapa, Capital Connection & Overlander)
2) Three main lines, plus the small Melling Line
3) Regular inter-city services to Masterton
4) Patronage of around 11 million passengers a year
5) Public subsidies of around $2 per rail trip

Another significant difference is the way in which the two systems are run. Here in Auckland we have a complicated system with Veolia Transport having the main rail contract, but on top of that having locomotives leased from KiwiRail, some drivers also from KiwiRail, ARTA seeming to co-ordinate things, Ontrack looking after the tracks, Auckland City Council owning Britomart station and Auckland Regional Council being ARTA’s funder. In Wellington, the system is far more simplified, with (as far as I know) KiwiRail owning the trains, operating the trains, owning the tracks, looking after the tracks, looking after the stations and so forth. The Greater Wellington Regional Council contribute to subsidies for the system, and is probably involved in the system’s planning, but there are – overall – far fewer different parties involved.

One particularly striking figure is how much more cost-effective Wellington’s rail system is than Auckland’s. The above figures suggest that Auckland’s system receives around $56 million of rail subsidies per year, while Wellington’s receives around $22 million – even though it runs many more services each day than are run in Auckland. I’m sure the fact that Wellington generally runs electric trains whereas Auckland runs diesel trains contributes to the difference – as electrics are much cheaper to run. But it seems reasonable to suggest that something else is going on here – that perhaps the complexity of Auckland’s system is leading to pretty huge inefficiencies. Looking at where the money gets spent on Auckland’s rail system provides some interesting further information in this respect: I must say I’m slightly curious what the $35 million Veolia contract does include, if it doesn’t include all the other matters listed above.

The difference between the cost-effectiveness of Auckland’s and Wellington’s systems is particularly interesting given the changes to the structuring of rail operations that Steven Joyce announced last year.  Generally, it seemed as though Joyce was wanting some structural separation between the agency that owns trains in Auckland and Wellington (which in the longer term will be KiwiRail) and the agency which operates the rail services. This separation currently exists in Auckland, but doesn’t in Wellington. Which does beg the question why, considering Wellington’s rail system seems so much more cost-effective than Auckland’s, we would even consider wanting to do this? Ideologically I can see that Joyce would want ‘competition’ between possible operators, but surely experience tells us that perhaps what we should be doing is applying the Wellington system to Auckland – rather than vice-versa?

Or aren’t we actually interested in making public transport cost-effective after all?

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  1. I assume much of the Veolia Contract is used to cover staff costs which brings up the question, how many staff do Wellington trains use? On some trains in Auckland I know there can be up to 5 staff per train, Driver(comes under Driver Hire if its a SA set), TM and 3 clippies. With integrated ticketing I am expecting automated ticket machines at all stations with only a few stations actually staffed. Will this allow us to reduce the number of staff needed and therefore reduce the cost?

    Looking at some of the other costs.
    Britomart and Station Access – Why are we paying a fee to use Britomart?
    Track Charges – I understand that Wellington doesn’t pay track access charges, hardly a fair situation, especially when comparing the two.
    Driver Hire – The Kiwirail driver hire issue is stupid, we provide a inferior service because the drivers of the SA sets cost more than the DMU drivers. What will happen once we get EMU’s, will we be using Kiwirail drivers or Veolia drivers. Someone needs to get both parties together and sort this mess out.
    Rolling stock maintenance – I imagine diesel trains are more unreliable than electric ones due to more stress caused by the engine. Also with Loco’s on the SA sets being designed for Freight its hardly surprising they break down if used in the way we are using them.
    Fuel – Surely will be less moving to Electrics

    1. The track access fee for Wellington is included in the money paid to Tranz Metro – it’s not a separate item like in AKL. This was the same when the track and trains were owned separately (by Toll & Ontrack).

      In terms of onboard staff, I believe numbers per train are similar. (From observation, approx one clippie per two cars on off peak or express services and one per car for peak all stations services.)

  2. In terms of the Britomart access fee, I guess that’s another example of the money-go-round that will thankfully end with the Super City. Auckland City Council owns the building and I guess charges for its use.

  3. Joyce is not interested in doing what the evidence tells him, casi in point is the PTMA changes… It is all ideologically driven and is not about providing the best deal for NZers as long as it is “competitive”…

  4. I would question the accuracy of your figures on Wellington Rail. Yes the current rail public subsidy is around $22 Million (it may be somewhat higher this year due to the major fall-off of patronage and the fact that GWRC has a “Gross Contract” with Tranzmetro for Wellington Rail Services). It is also clear that the current subsidy is not enough to even cover normal maintainence.

    However, the real costs going forward are more important, and frightening. As outlined in the Wellington Regional Rail Plan, the operating costs over the next 10 years is $671 Million ($67.1 Million/year for the mathmatically challenged). Even assuming the current policy of 47% of this being covered by fares leaves the tax/ratepayers to pick a predicted $35.5 Million/year just to cover day-to-day operations. Of course the planned rail capital is about the same ($649 Million over 10 years) but non-rail users get to pay for all of this 🙂

    All in all this means that both rates and fares are planned to increase at least 3% per year every year for the next decade and this assumes that NZTA/Central government continue to fund the largest part of our service.

  5. Does anyone know how many passengers would be required to make the service break even? I know this wouldn’t be a linear line as increased passengers will need increased services to cope.

    Also I imagine the amount of subsidies needed per trip would decrease with new lines added.

  6. Matt, if you grew patronage on services between and after the peaks, on services between outer suburbs, and on services going in the counter-peak direction then you would simply be adding patrons to fairly empty trains that were already running. No need for any extra services necessarily.

    Capturing non-peak hour patronage is key to affordability in my opinion. It is no wonder trains run at a ‘loss’ when they only every approach being full for two or three hours in one direction every day.

  7. There are extremely few urban rail systems in the world that don’t require subsidies. Just Hong Kong and Tokyo from what I have heard. In most Australian cities farebox recovery is around one-third: even lower than Auckland.

    That doesn’t mean Sydney is about to close down its rail network though. The wider benefits make it more than worthwhile.

  8. Wellington works very well as a low density suburbs to CBD at peak times service. However outside of this its usefulness is limited. They need to increase offpeak and counter-directional services to get better cost-recovery.
    To do this they need to move the system from a park and ride one to a bus transfer/network system. Park and rides usually aren’t much good for off-peak travel as they are usually full by 9am or so, and expanding them is prohibitively expensive. Aucklands network is probably better for non CBD trips, esp when Manukau opens.
    As an aside does anyone know if any work has been done in Auckland or Wgtn to see how people get to the train station? ie breakdown percentages for park and ride, walking, cycling, bus etc.

  9. Luke – At my station (Sturges Rd) there is a park and ride with about 170 car parks in it. I have never seen even seen it half full so there is a lot of spare capacity in it yet. I think the first task is getting people to see trains as a viable alternative. This should be helped once New Lynn is finished as that is source of many delays at the moment.

  10. I reckon very few people would arrive at trains stations on the bus, because of the lack of integration between fares and timetables. Also the stupid situation where bus routes like the 135 mirror the railway line.

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