Despite enabling works for the City Rail Link being on the cusp of starting we still don’t know just when the rest of the project will get the green light. Here’s the latest on the issue.
While they are yet to budge on the start date in recent months we’ve seen a noticeable change in the way the government talks about the project. It is talked about much more positively and I think a big part of that is Transport Minister Simon Bridges not being ideologically opposed the project like his predecessors were. The latest comments about it come from the break at Waterview yesterday.
Transport Minister Bridges says Auckland’s next big tunneling project will be the City Rail Link (CRL), with the early stages getting underway in the first half of next year.
The government and Auckland Council are still at odds over when central government funding for the CRL should kick in, but Bridges said they were getting there.
“Everyone accepts it’s got to happen, it should happen, it will happen, now really we’re down to about an 18-month timing gap between the council and the government,” he said.
An 18 month timing gap doesn’t sound like much at all but actually aligns fairly closely to what we already knew. The council have now said they want works under way in 2018. They actually wanted it sooner and the draft long term plan included funding for it however the Auditor General didn’t think it should be included without the government confirming their share of funding.
On the other side of the fence the Government have said a 2020 start date but have also said they would consider it happening sooner if some employment and patronage thresholds were met. The CRL is the only transport project that I’m ever aware of in New Zealand that has had targets attached to. As I’ve said before the employment target in particular is odd as there are many other factors that influence travel demand and many other trips to the city centre every day that aren’t for employment.
The Ministry of Transport have finally published their latest six-monthly report on progress which covers up to the end of June – you can read my version for a few months ago here. The MoT report only covers the patronage target as the employment figures are only produced annually with the latest ones due out at the end of next week. On to patronage but before reading the current update it’s worth remembering what the Ministry have said in the past about it.
The first report in December 2013 essentially predicted that Auckland would never reach 20 million trips prior to 2020. The second one in August 2014 and the third one in February this year predicted that patronage would grow till about 2017 then taper off.
Here’s what they now say:
Auckland Transport’s Public Transport Monthly Patronage Report for June 2015 shows rail patronage of 13.9 million trips for the year to June 2015, compared to 11.4 million trips for the previous year. This is an increase of 2.5 million trips or 22 percent.
Rail patronage has shown strong growth over the last two years and, if this growth can be sustained, the rail system is likely to reach 20 million trips well before 2020. However, given current patronage of 13.9 million is 6.1 million trips below the threshold and the variability in results since 2010, at least another year’s growth will be needed to confirm this result.
The Ministry’s comments on patronage are now verging on comical. After saying for almost two years that it’s unlikely Auckland will meet the 20 million trip target the stunning growth of over 21% has forced them to change tack. They now finally admit we’re likely to see the target eclipsed but then go on to ignore the growth rate and say that with the total being only 13.9 million trips that we should wait another year just to make sure the growth continues. If the current growth continues then by June next year rail patronage will almost be at 17 million trips a year and on track to hit 20 million trips some time in 2017.
It’s like whoever is writing these reports is desperately holding out hope that the growth will slow down. The question is will it?
Reality dictates that at some point the high level of growth we’re currently experiencing will have to slow down. Even when it does I doubt growth will suddenly grind to a halt and those future increases will be off a larger base. There is still a lot of improvements to be made that will influence patronage including:
- Optimisation of the EMUs should see them become faster and even more reliable
- A move to six trains an hour at peak times on the Western Line, frequency is perhaps the most factor for driving patronage
- Integrated fares will make it easier to transfer between bus and train services and make many current trips cheaper.
- The New Network creates an integrated PT network with more buses feeding in to train stations we should see more people transferring between services.
So how has rail performed in the months since June – pretty well actually. Patronage for the month of July was almost 22% higher than July 2014 while August was over 20% higher. That has raised the annual growth of trips on the rail network by 22.7%. As of the end of August patronage is sitting at 14.4 million trips up almost 500k trips in just two months. I’ve also heard that September is shaping up to be another good month and the results of that should be out within the next few days.
I often wonder if there’s a bit of a physiological barrier of 15 million that affects many people’s view on the targets. Once over that 15 million trips I think we’ll see comments like those of the Ministry start to change.
One thing Simon Bridges has said recently is that he is reminded almost every day from Len Brown about just how fast patronage is growing. Hopefully he kept that in mind when he read this report.