Auckland has reached another significant milestone in its public transport renaissance and in doing so has smashed the government’s old CRL targets. We’ve now reached 20 million trips on the rail network within a year, almost double what it was just four years ago. This is a fantastic achievement for a city that was once on the brink of having its rail network shut down. It also once again highlights that when Aucklanders are provided with decent public transport options that they’ll flock to use them.
Even getting this far has been a remarkable feat. At one point in the early 1990’s, with ridership barely scraping above 1 million trips per year, the rail network was about to be closed down. However, the hard work and good fortune of one man set the rail renaissance in motion. You can read the full story here.
Of course, things really kicked up a gear in 2003 when Britomart opened, once again returning trains back to the city. Since then usage continued to grow as services and infrastructure improved. This has been especially the case since around 2014 when the first electric trains started rolling on the network and the pace in growth has been remarkably consistent since then. This can be seen in the graph below which includes some of the big milestones over the last 15 years.
The growth has been so strong it’s taken officials by surprise, to the point they’re now having to order more trains sooner than anticipated to help cope with the demand. I also believe there is still significant growth that we could see if Auckland Transport improved off peak and weekend services.
To look at the above graph a slightly different way, this one shows how many months it took to add another million passengers annually. It has been running at an extra 1 million every 4-5 months for some time now
Based on the last ridership numbers we saw, I’d estimate that those 20 million trips are broken down as
- Western Line – 6.9 million
- Southern Line – 5.7 million
- Eastern Line – 5.6 million
- Onehunga Line – 1.4 million
- Pukekohe – 0.4 million
At a station level, Britomart is by far the busiest (until the CRL is completed) with 58% of all trips beginning or ending there. The top 5 busiest stations are
- Britomart – 5.2m boardings
- Newmarket – 1.2m boardings
- New Lynn – 710k boardings
- Panmure – 652k boardings
- Papatoetoe – 607k boardings
When the government finally agreed to the CRL in mid-2013, after years of obstructing and fighting the project, ridership was around 10 million trips. They then took the unusual step of setting some usage targets to allow the project to be built sooner if growth occurred faster – but still delayed from the council’s vision. This was unusual because no project before or since has been subjected to having targets applied. The target they set at the time must have felt so far away and impossible to them, and was:
“rail patronage is on track to hit 20 million trips a year well before 2020”
Over the course of a handful of monitoring reports, the Ministry of Transport would continue to predict that we wouldn’t reach the 20 million target, assuming that growth would soon slow down. It never did. The graph below shows how many trips have been made on our rail network for the last 12-months, compared to the target set by the government.
At current rates we could be at 25 million trips by 2020.
It’s interesting to compare some of our predictions from a few years ago. Back in 2013 when the targets were announced, I wrote this.
Over the next three years we are embarking on the biggest change to PT we have seen since ripping out the trams in the 1950s. We will have a brand new fleet of electric trains running with more capacity per train, higher frequencies on and off peak, delivering faster journeys which will all serve to make train travel more attractive. We will have a brand new bus network that among other things will help feed people into the rail network rather than competing with it and we will have integrated fares to ensure there is no financial penalty for transferring between services. These three things combined are likely to cause a massive increase in patronage in the coming years. It is due to these factors that I think it is entirely possible we will reach the 20 million trip target early.
In the end it didn’t end up mattering all that much as the government came to their senses and agreed to get on with the project.
Finally, it’s worth taking a quick look at the future. As mentioned, usage has grown so fast that Auckland Transport now need to buy more trains. These are expected to be battery powered trains so they can also serve Pukekohe. As part of the business case for these new trains, AT say their ‘best estimate’ for growth assumes 10% growth this financial year then 8% growth through to the opening of the CRL in 2023. That alone could see Auckland add another 10 million trips annually. After the CRL growth is likely to go crazy again and could quickly jump to 40-50 million trips annually.