Ridership on Auckland’s trains has experienced fantastic growth over the last few years, increasingly a staggering 70% in just three years to 17.3 million trips as of the end of September. The positive thing is that the growth remains strong at nearly 20% per annum. Growth has been so impressive that it is ahead of what was projected to occur with electrification, despite the electric trains not coming into service around two years later than expected in the business case.
The good news is the forecast for the future looks bright. The new bus network that’s just been rolled out in South Auckland and over the next 18 months will be rolled out to the rest of the urban area. That, combined with the recently implemented Simplified Fares will likely see a lot of people transferring to trains as part of their journey and should continue to help drive ridership over the next few years. No one knows just what the maximum capacity of the rail network will be prior to the City Rail Link but previous modelling has suggested somewhere in the 20-25 million range.
But there are definitely some clouds on the horizon in the form of capacity constraints. Already we get reports of services at, or close to capacity during peak times and as patronage rises that will only get worse.
Ultimately we need more trains, both to increase the length of our existing trains so more run as six-car sets and to run more services. But there are two main issues with this.
- Even if Auckland Transport placed an order for more trains today, it will take at least two years before we see them on the tracks and carrying passengers. Based on current trends we don’t have that long.
- To run additional services it requires the completion of the City Rail Link (and other associated infrastructure like signalling improvements). That isn’t expected to be finished until 2022/23 and until that happens, peak frequencies can’t change from what they are now. Note: Because the CRL makes services more efficient, AT have said in the past they think they have enough trains to run services once the CRL opens. They’re absolutely kidding themselves if they think that’s true.
So here are a couple of thoughts on what we can do to address this and ensure there is still enough capacity to enable ridership to grow.
Speed up the trains we have
Our trains are so stupidly slow it feels George R.R. Martin writes books faster. The sad fact is that right now, the timetable with brand new electric trains is slower than it was with the clunky old diesels. Through a combination of archaic operating process and poor technology they are often both slow between stops, especially approaching stations, and have incredibly long dwell times at stations. My perception on some of this may be clouded by being on the Western Line which often has a level crossing right next to the station.
We know that over the last year or two, numerous signalling, track and train improvements have been made to enable faster, more reliable services but so far those improvements haven’t been reflected in the timetable and sometimes feels like services are being kept slow just to avoid getting ahead of schedule.
The good news is that some improvements are coming. AT say a new timetable is due in March which should finally capitalise on the improvements mentioned above. The benefit of that is it will free up a few more three-car trains to allow more to run as six-car ones. Here’s what AT say about journey times with the new timetables:
Run times on the Southern and Eastern Lines with electric trains will be shorter than previous pre-electronic train control system (ETCS) signalling with diesel trains, with equivalent times on the Western Line due to large number of rail level and pedestrian crossings and speed limits at these crossings.
But nothing appears to be being done about the dwell times which can often exceeding 50 seconds even for minor stops. This was a video I shot while in Tokyo of one of the metro lines showing a dwell time of just 20 seconds from the time we stopped till we were underway again. Admittedly not all trains were this fast but this is what AT should be aiming for.
— Greater Auckland (@GreaterAKL) October 12, 2016
One process used in Japan that we could fairly easily adopt is to have the train manager in the rear driving cab of train checking the doors/platform are clear rather than the process we have of the TM closing all but one door, checking they’re closed then closing his door before the train can leave. At stations on curves giving poor visibility, screens linked to CCTV cameras can assist TM and we already have this at a couple of stations, such as Fruitvale Rd station. Even a few seconds saved at each station can add up significantly.
Saving time not only frees up more trains to boost capacity but also helps make trains more attractive in general.
Order more trains now
This one seems kind of obvious but given the two-year lead time for trains, it’s essential we order more as soon as possible. We know there’s already been talk within AT about the need for this and it also appears they’re also looking at tying it in with decisions around how to deal with Pukekohe. One solution talked about is buying up to about 10 battery powered trains to enable electric services to be extended without the high cost of extending the wires. That in turn would free up some units to allow more services to run as six-car trains. The key issue though is funding and who pays for it as these trains don’t come cheap. Each train costs something like $10 million to build so we’d probably need at least $100 million now and more after the CRL.
Spread the peak
Currently AT consider the peak to be 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm but even within those times there is a ‘peak of the peak’ and it is at those times where capacity is most constrained. AT should be looking at how they can encourage more people to travel at different times, both for addressing capacity constraints but also for attracting more people to use services. The first step will be to improve off peak services so they run at a minimum of every 15 minutes all day but AT’s own statutorily required Regional Public Transport Plan calls for even better with services at a minimum of every 10 minutes on the three major lines.
We’re hoping the previously mentioned March timetable change will see improvement on this matter.
Another important thing they could do to encourage off peak travel would be to implement off peak fares, offering a discount for travelling at times when the network isn’t as busy. Of course, not everyone can shift when travel but some can and the added benefit of this is it could attract more people to use PT.
Reconfigure the trains we have
Of all the options at AT’s disposal, perhaps the fastest, cheapest and easiest might be to reconfigure the trains. Our trains are currently configured to focus on longer distance trips by squeezing as many seats in them as possible. Each three-car train has around 230 seats and of which just over 2/3rds are set to face forwards of backwards with the remaining, including the low floor section of the middle car, set up as metro style sideways seating. The trains are also said to carry 143 people standing although at a squeeze I’m sure they’ve carried more.
There’s a good reason so many PT systems use sideways seating and that’s because it enables a lot more people to fit in each vehicle and while I was in Japan I noticed even most medium distance trains travelling further than Pukekohe were configured exclusively this way. It also doesn’t lose all that many seats because sideways seating takes up some of the space otherwise needed for leg room. As a comparison, the low floor section of the middle car has 16 seats on each side, although half of them can fold up to enable bikes, prams or wheelchairs to more easily fit in, while the centre section of the two end cars has 20 seats per side.
Initially converting just the centre sections of two end cars in each train would lose just 16 seats from a train but gain a huge amount of additional space for people to stand. I also understand the seats are designed to be easily changed. If you catch a train you may notice the current directional seating is cantilevered off the walls. This means there’s are no poles to move or marks to be left on the floor and changing the seats is simply a case of changing a bracket to turn the seats around. It would probably also have the added advantage of stopping vandals from scratching the backs of seats. If needed, we could do the same with the rest of the seats on the trains.
I realise not everyone likes the sideways seats but I’m sure most would rather be able to get on a train them be so busy they’re forced to wait for the next one. We should probably consider doing this on some buses too, the red Citylink would be a prime candidate.