This post is a little bit of a rant but it is also but is also to highlight how we often don’t seem to be able to get even the most simple things right.

The story starts years ago with what could best  be described as growing pains, project DART was in full swing with the western line was busy being duplicated. Unfortunately when you have construction going on around a working rail line things sometimes go wrong and that is especially the case when the system you are working on is 80+ years old and has had little maintenance.  It seemed that a gust of wind or leaf falling in the wrong place at the wrong time would be all that was needed knock out the signalling or points which it did far to frequently. In fact it was so bad that for years we would average more than one fault a day, here is a response to a parliamentary written question a few years ago about the number of failures in Auckland that show just how bad it was.

Question: How does the number of points or signal failures on the Auckland rail system over the past year compare to previous years?

Answer Text: KiwiRail has advised the following:

Signal failures:
Apr 07 – Jan 08 (10 months) 144
Feb 08 – Jan 09 (12 months) 214
Feb 09 – Jan 10 (12 months) 172

Point failures:
Apr 07 – Jan 08 (10 months) 288
Feb 08 – Jan 09 (12 months) 267
Feb 09 – Jan 10 (12 months) 234

For at least 3 years in a row there was more than 400 network related fault per year, and this doesn’t even count the number of train breakdowns.  Faults will more often that not result in trains being delayed which leads to angry passengers. ARTA eventually got the message that people were getting fed up with not knowing about what was happening and set up a text message service to alert people if trains were delayed. The problem with that service is that you would just get a blast of messages, often not related to the trains you would want to catch and which frequently far to late to be useful

In late 2010/early 2011 ARTA advised that the service was to be upgraded to make it more useful for people. Here is what they advertise on MAXX to this day about it.

With MAXX Train Updates you can register to receive text messages if your train isdisrupted, cancelled or delayed by more than 10 minutes.

Messages are personalised to the specific information you want, meaning you’ll hear only about train services relevant to you. Simply select the journeys you regularly make and select the time period for which you would like to receive information.

For example, if you normally travel from Ellerslie Station to Britomart between 7am and 8am weekdays, select these details. You will receive text messages about services in this time band, for this location.

MAXX Train Updates to your mobile phone are free.

This new service replaces the current train delay text message service. If you currently receive these messages, you will need to re-register for the new service. The former service will no longer operate after 31 January 2011.

As it says, you could register to get the messages and select filters that you wanted which sounded great, they even made it easy to do via a web interface. The service started off alright and definitely seemed to be an improvement, except for the fact that text messages would come from and Australian number (I assumed it was just the company they used) however not long afterwards things went downhill. For starters the phone number the text message came from changed to a NZ number but oddly the messages started coming from one of a few different numbers. Next some messages would come personalised with your name and the details would be based on the station you selected e.g.

Matt, the 6:56 am Britomart train from Sturges Rd has been cancelled from Swanson to Henderson due to an Operational issue

While others would be generic and only based on the station the service started from

The 06:53 am Western train from Swanson to Britomart has been cancelled from Swanson to Henderson due to a earlier Signal fault

I actually received both of these messages  6 minutes apart from different phone numbers but both are about the same train service ( I don’t know about you but I find the language in the first one confusing).  These messages actually arrived before the service was due but often they are late and even more frequently they don’t show up at all. In fact they so frequently don’t show up when trains are late or cancelled I question the value of even having the service.

Unfortunately the problem though is it gets worse than this, a lot of the time that I actually get messages it is actually outside of the timeframe that I have set, like on weekends and to take the cake I even occasionally get messages about lines I haven’t even subscribed to ( just last week I had a message about mechanical faults on the Onehunga line).

Despite only being 1 year old, the service has actually been getting steadily worse and less reliable so my question for AT is, why do we keep having these problems and what will it take to get the service working as it is advertised? Are they now waiting on the mystical Unicorn that is to real time information as a solution to this? Why do these things have to be so hard in Auckland?

BTW I would love to know the number of failures that we have had in the last two years if anyone knows, at the very least it should have reduced following the completion of double tracking and now with the new signalling system that is being rolled out and covers much of the network.

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  1. Matt, you raise excellent points. Also, I’d like to know if AT (or ARTA back in the day at least) did any research into how other transport organisations manage their train delay comms. Metlink in Wellington has an excellent service from what I can see (I haven’t subscribed to their texts, only follow their Twitter account). If their text messages are as up-to-date as the tweets I get, I wonder why AT hasn’t jumped on their comms bandwagon. Then, there’s the possibility of operating a mini blog that has RSS feeds tailored to each line so that one could subscribe to the lines they use.

    It doesn’t have to be complicated with customisable notifications containing one’s name, only to be received because this train is *your* train. It just needs to be received!

  2. Agree Matt – customer information has to be consistent to be worthwhile. I’d like to see an end to the euphemisms – what exactly is the Operational Issue…? Too easy to pass on information without informing the customer at all.

    I started using the western line last April/May; it does strike me that the failures on the line have reduced significantly, particularly after about July. Still get odd problems, but early issues for me seemed to all be related to Project Dart work that had been going on somewhere.

  3. Platform announcements are no better. Often a service is back up and running while the announcement is still saying it’s delayed. Very confusing, I’ve learned just to ignore them and wait anyway.

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