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.