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?

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  1. I have to be harsh with ARTA because they should make sure that their contractors do their job … as a user all we care about is that the trains arrive and depart on time.
    I shouldn’t be expected to be generous because KiwiRail didn’t get the train working or that OnTrack failed to solve a signalling problem or that people took too long to board a train. All that is irrelevant from a user point of view and the line ” apologises for the inconvenience” is meaningless if you hear it every day without any visible improvement.
    I think that it is ARTA’s role to make sure things don’t go wrong and when they do, they should put very detailed information about what happened and why … They don’t have to make us read that info but saying something more than “operational problems” or “point failure” would show that somebody gives a damn about the reliability of the service.
    What I’d ultimately like to see is that penalties are applied as in any other situation. If a service is not provided, then there is a penalty. A train fails and stops a service, then KiwiRail should compensate ARTA for that and then ARTA should use those resources to inform about what happened and help Veolia to figure out a way out … and the same for all the institutions involved. It would be too much to ask for a “your money back” kind of guarantee but there must be a way for ARTA to ensure that the services are provided to a minimum standard.

  2. “It would be too much to ask for a “your money back” kind of guarantee but there must be a way for ARTA to ensure that the services are provided to a minimum standard.”
    I agree although what I fear is that those minimum standards will be shifted e.g. my western line train is meant to get into town at 8:07. It hasn’t arrived to town at that time all year, there have been a few days where it is close but it is usually 10 minutes late (this would have contributed to the 36% punctuality in Jan). I suspect that when the new timetable comes Veolia/ARTA will just shift the timetable to make the train arrive on time.

  3. I have no problem with the standards being shifted as long as they are reliable.
    The problem with punctuality of the Western Line I believe it has to do with the insane turn around that the trains do at Newmarket … that alone added 7 minutes to the trip (I measured it!) when compared to when the train stopped at the Kingdon St station so a loss in punctuality was expected.
    I can actually live with a 65min run from Henderson as long as it is reliable (even though I’d prefer a shorter commute). What gets me is the fact that I’m powerless when something goes wrong on the “network” and it is as if it is my fault for choosing the train “passengers are advised to make alternative arrangements” is unacceptable!

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