March was definitely mad for many bus and train users with the annual surge in usage resulting in many reporting full services – which in the case of buses often resulting in having to wait for a number to go past before one with enough space to squeeze on came along. Infact it was so mad AT even roped in other operators like Party Bus to help provide extra capacity. However, a number of factors – such as having Easter in March – meant that for buses at least, the month won’t go down in the record books. There were however still some good results on the city’s trains and ferries.

2016-03 - Total Patronage

In total patronage was down slightly by 2.8% however taking Easter and special events like the Cricket World Cup last year in to account it would have been up 1.6%. What isn’t mentioned anywhere in the AT reports is any impact the fare changes at the end of February may have had.

2016-03 - Patronage Table

The fall in patronage was led by buses which in March were down 5.8% compared to March last year, a fairly substantial change. When AT normalise the usage to take into account the unique factors they say it would still have been down 2.2%. But in addition to the normal factors, they say changes to bus stops late last year as part of the first stage of City Rail Link changes also had an impact on usage and had they not occurred, patronage would have been slightly up. They also say they expect to see some recovery in these figures in April. I certainly hope that happens as March is the third consecutive month that patronage has fallen compared to the same time last year.

Despite the factors that negatively impacted on patronage, the solid growth in train use in the past few years has continued – although those factors tempered it a bit. For the month train trips were up 4.7% but AT say taking the other factors into account would have seen it up 13.8%. The underlying growth has remained solid with the average number of trips each business day rising by around 10,000 per day or 17.3%. Given the pattern seen last year with weekday usage, this suggests we should continue to see strong rail growth this year too. As we already know, we passed 16 million trips in early April.

2016-03 - Rail Weekday

One thing that will definitely be helping rail usage is the significant improvement in performance since going all electric in July last year. In March 98.9% arrived at their final destination and of those 95.1% did so within 5 minutes of the timetable.

Ferries are also doing well with the number of trips up 9.2% compared to last March and it would have been up 11.2% without the likes of Easter.

In addition to the overall patronage, there are some other interesting metrics in the monthly stats report.

  • The latest quarterly satisfaction results are available and show a mixed bag with trains up, buses flat and ferries down compared when last measured in December. Buses and ferries are also down compared to March last year.

2016-03 - PT Satisfaction

  • There is a two-month lag on the financial metrics but they show PT and especially rail continuing to improve. Farebox recovery which is mandated by the NZTA to reach 50% by June 2018 reached 49.6% and that is primarily being driven by a relatively rapid improvement in rail performance. As this month’s result won’t be seen till we get the April figures, it will be interesting to see what impact the falling bus patronage and change in fares at the end of February has had.

2016-03 - Farebox

  • HOP usage also improved in March hitting 80% for the first time on trains and buses not far behind on 78%

2016-03 - HOP Usage

There are a number of things that will boost patronage in coming months.

  • According to AT’s journey planner, the Western Line will go to 10 minute peak and 20 minute inter-peak frequencies – matching the southern and eastern line – on May 9
  • At the end of July AT will introduce integrated fares which along with making multiple trips using PT easier, is also likely reduce the cost for many people. AT staff are seeking board approval for the prices in the closed session of the board meeting later this week.
  • HOP usage should continue to improve as all SuperGold card trips will have to be made by HOP card from July onwards (via a concession)
  • AT are also planning to improve the frequency of the Northern Express from Silverdale in late June, shifting from 15 to 10 minute peak frequencies which they say is in response to high patronage growth and insufficient capacity.
  • The new bus network for South Auckland along with the Otahuhu bus/train interchange is still on track to go live in October.
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  1. It’s interesting that the busway and 3/5 trains (the ones with properly rapid timetables) are up in absolute numbers, despite Easter. Suggests they’re an attractive option for off-peak/non-commute trips. They probably coped with March Madness somewhat better as well, so perhaps shed fewer frustrated users.

    1. Our little Rapid Transit Network, main rail lines, Northern Busway, and perhaps the Devonport Ferry, consistently attract more and more users. Of course, they are the more attractive and effective end of the PT offer. As entirely expected, and why completing the reach and performance of this network across the wider city as quickly should be AT and NZTA’s primary goal, as we have been urging since we began.

      With the additional note that the Active networks are just as urgent and being quicker and cheaper to build can be delivered even sooner for a faster experience of the transformational ‘network effect’.

      Inefficient and outdated funding structures don’t allow the rational prioritisation of the RTN however.

      1. You shouldn’t belittle the rapid transit system that much. You know Aucklands rail network is almost exactly the same length as the Vancouver skytrain metro system (about 100km of track each) and almost exactly the same number of stations (40 odd).

        The interesting thing is that from the same extent of network and the same number of stations, Vancouver gets 100 million trips a year and we get 16 million. The difference? Vancouver has a very high level of bus integration extending the reach of the metro, it has intensive development around stations, and it has very good service levels.

        Auckland is doing the bus and fare integration, it’s starting to do the intensification at stations, and it’s working on the CRL to give increased service levels and capacity. I see no reason why our “little” rail network can’t move four or five times what it does today without expansion.

        1. Indeed. And that is exactly what I said: ‘extending the reach and performance’ of this network. And by network I clearly stated the RTN, mentionting three modes, so this is not a call for trains everywhere, but access to a fully connected and citywide RTN consisting of the most appropriate mode for each route. Couldn’t agree more.

          The biggest challenges to this clear way ahead are the funding constraints from government, the limits on Council’s ability to independently raise capital, and the political impasse over changing to more rational planning regulations to allow the evolution to a more efficient and liveable urban form.

          1. Wasting great dollops of cash on items such as Mill Rd and the East-West link, while delaying items like AMETI doesn’t help with the expansion of alternate modes.

      2. Our RTN attracts users because it is a high quality offering. The response isnt necessarily “focus on the RTN” though. The vast majority of trips are on surface street corridors. You could argue the results reflect the lack of focus on these corridors. Very little bus priority has gone in in the last 5 years (admittedly the pace has improved lately). We still have discontinuous shoulder lanes as standard where they do exist. The disruptions to the CBD appear to have been poorly planned for to date.

        1. True enough far as it goes, however bus lanes are indeed coming more rapidly, all over, and the whole New Network, and the fact remains that the RTN offers a whole level above even optimised buses by being grade separate.

          But yes all levels of AKL’s PT systems require upgrading after 60 years of active neglect. Onward.

  2. If they can run 10 minute frequencies during the peak, why don’t they run 10 minute frequencies during the off peak? It takes so much more out of my day to visit the hospital when the train only runs every 30 mins and the timing is such that i have to arrive 25 minutes early to avoid being 5 minutes late. I expect we would see a significant jump in patronage if the service will turn-up-and-go all day instead of only on the peak.

    1. Well that is the plan; the Rapid Transit Network is defined as as all day 7am-7pm 10 minute service. So we still really don’t have true Rapid Transit, it only occurs at the peaks. And that’s well understood to not be good practice.

      The next big push needs to be off peak, and providing better frequencies is key to that, also with the new fare structure there also should be opportunity to incentivise with price too.

        1. Who is less relevant than why. And the answer to why is because the general experience is that PT demand is much higher between 6-7pm than it is between 6-7am. So if you’re going to choose to run a 12 hour frequent service window, then 7am – 7pm better meets prevailing demands than 6am – 6pm.

          Although naturally the goal is to expand that window progressively over time, such that eventually the RTN and urban frequent routes are operating 15 minutes or better from 6 am – 10pm seven days per week. When demands can sustain that level of service, you know you’re doing something right.

        2. The analysts at AT presumably did. As Stu suggests, the demand for travel is demonstrably greater between 6pm and 7pm than it is between 6am and 7am. Ticketing data is clear on this. So if you have to pick one to increase service levels on, you pick the 6pm to 7pm.

          Naturally you’d do both if/when you can, and something like 6am to 10pm should be the goal. Again if you look at the data the demand is very very light before 6am and after 10pm.

      1. Interesting the 7PM definition (same for the QTN I think), and yet absurdly many bus and transit lanes only operate to 6PM or even earlier.

        1. yes completely agree. The most ridiculous example is Mt Eden Rd, where the PM peak direction bus lane operates from 430-530pm.

          Auckland’s buses are struggling because we leave them sitting in traffic.

    2. The short answer of why not is the operating cost. Staff, especially drivers, are the major operating cost. Staffing one train would cost in the order of a hundred dollars an hour all up, including various overheads and expenses. Each of the main lines takes about two hours round trip, roughly, which means taking each line from three trains an hour to six an hour requires another six trains and crews in service.

      Six crews per line x three lines X $100 ish = $1,800 an hour extra to turn off peak service into peak service. Do that for ten hours a day and it’s $18,000 a day, plus electricity and other marginal costs. Let’s call it $25 grand to be conservative.

      However cost is only one part of the equation, the other is benefit which in fiscal terms means increased fares. My guess is you would want to be picking up an extra ten thousand fare paying trips a day to break even. That’s the question, would frequent all day service boost fare revenue by an extra ten thousand trips a day? WIth nine extra trains an hour, running both directions for ten extra hours a day… that’s an average of about fifty new customers on each and every new run.

      Unlikely to start with, but I do wonder if the network effect of having turn up and go trains might not change travel patterns very rapidly and get those trips over time.

      1. Good point Nick. I think once we have integrated ticketing then this will boost off-peak demand as people would be more likely to transfer where in the past they may have walked/cycled/driven/taxi-Ubered (or just not taking PT).

      2. No problem getting 10,000+ extra trips a day on the rails with all day peak services.
        Making them all fully paying trips like the bulk of those using rail now – not so easy.

        Zonal fares will mean a lot of bus/train transfers happen – way more than the 10,000 needed by your calculations.

        But a lot of those extra trips will mean the revenue they generate is lower than it could be, as it is now being split in some fashion between AT and one or more bus operators.
        Whereas now when using the train – 100% of the fare [or fare subsidy if a Goldcard holder etc[ goes to AT [less the 50 cent transfer fee if its applied].

        Even so you’d think that even 50 more fully paying equivalents a day would be easy to achieve.
        If the trains were turn up and go all day everyday and linked with buses farewise to boot, I think a lot of people will start using trains for all or part of their journey.

        AT need to bold here and give it a serious crack, especially once zone based fares come into being later this year.

  3. Bus usage flattening off, rail patronage growing. I’m concerned that rail patronage may be battered as we get into the crl build, depending on the level of disruption at Britomart, which I expect will be significant and protracted.

    1. I’d be more concerned about the impact at the Mt Eden end. I can’t see any option during construction than reducing the Western Line down to one track through the site, which means the 10 min frequencies soon to be introduced won’t be able to be maintained.

      Britomart should be able to maintain it’s current level of service, it will just come down to how much of a disruption having the entrance on the opposite side of the CPO will be.

  4. How about that Farebox recovery from 46.4% to 49.6% in one year!

    That’s electrification giving its double love of lowering operating costs and attracting ever more fare paying users.

    I think it is time to start reinvesting those gains into spreading the frequency to the interpeak. Let’s double-down on quality in order to bring on the desired transformation [which is after all the policy!].

    1. 9 May for 10 minute frequency on the Western Line.

      The costs associated with getting dwell times down and level crossings removed is where I’d be concentrating any operating surplus, followed by additional trains, extension of current RTN (nothern busway and eletrification to Pukekohe) and the start of the LRT project, approximately in that order.

      There will always be more projects than money, so how do we squeeze the most of the funding that is available?

  5. Fair box recovery – do AT have solid plans to make the suburban train stations more ‘secure’ regarding people having to pay or tag on/off? Seem silly to be paying security and ticket checkers when a station could be designed to be safe and only have paying customers using it

    1. When you make a station secure, you need to staff it. There needs to be a manual over ride to barriers.

      I doubt it’s economical to do so, the present solution is probably cheaper. Melbourne suburban stations aren’t manned either for the same reasons.

      It’s only a problem if people are fare dodging between two unmanned stations. If you man the top 5 stations, then the problem gets minimized.

    2. Either Toronto or Vancouver tried that, I forget.

      Regardless it was an absolute disaster – the cost of just running the new stations massively exceeded the amount of fare evasion. Then you consider the fact that the new barriers were very expensive to install (especially given stations often aren’t well suited to them).

  6. Couple of points:
    “AT are also planning to improve the frequency of the Northern Express from Silverdale in late June, shifting from 15 to 10 minute peak frequencies” – Wonder if this include increases to off-peak frequencies too?
    Also AT HOP use only 25% on ferries?
    I wonder also if the bus strikes caused a small drop/change in mode use.
    Another change would be an increase in active mode use.

      1. The motorway between Albany and Silverdale has spare capacity at the moment but the busway extension to Albany is greatly required now at peak. Hibiscus Coast Hwy and Whangaparaoa Rd are more in need of bus priority measures. A bus only on/off ramp at Silverdale would be of assistance.

  7. It is a shame that the busway in many cases only serves well the trip to the city. My experience of arriving at Albany Station is that there seems to be connectivity to nowhere.

    I couldn’t believe that I asked at Albany Station where to catch the bus to Takapuna and was told that it went from somewhere else. I can see why services other than the busway are in decline -I am looking for a polite way to say that they are crap. I still cannot believe it is taking 3 years to reorganize the Shore services.

    1. I sympathize with your experience and your frustration.

      But the simple fact is that network re-structures always take a lot of time, and they take especially long time in situations where you are simultaneously changing bus contracting systems, i.e. PTOM.

      I appreciate that this does not help us now, but I believe that the long-suffering busway connections are about to be improved.

      P.s. In terms of getting from Albany to Takapuna, I would have thought your best best was to jump back on the busway to Akoranga or Smales and connect from there. Not sure what google would say though …

    2. Well not just the busway. Pretty much the entire network on the North Shore just serves commuting into the city. And too bad, this will not change with the “new network”.

      As a consequence, asking Google Maps to go from Birkenhead to Takapuna has the somewhat amusing result of going from Birkenhead to the city, and then from the city to Takapuna. (there are more direct ways but they are barely any faster)

      1. This is a direct result of the Northcote locals refusing a busway station at the bottom of Onewa Road. There is no one else to blame.

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