Over the holiday break we’ll dig into the archives a bit. This post by Matt was originally published in July 2014.

There has been a bit of comment on the blog recently questioning how Auckland runs it’s rail system. In particular around the whether the city should be running express trains or not. In this post I’m going to look at some of the positives and negatives on both sides of the argument. I’m mainly going to be thinking about this from a post electrification point of view so just looking at the network between Swanson and Papakura.

The Auckland’s rail network seems like it’s at a funny size, it’s neither a metro type system made up of lines 10-15km in length but with the exception of Papakura and Pukekohe isn’t really a super long distance commuter network either. Instead it’s somewhere awkwardly in between and made worse particularly on the western line by close station spacing which can make trips quite slow. A trip to Swanson is 27km while Papakura is 31km. We also know we also know from the comparison of the Auckland and Wellington networks that the average trip is about 13.7km in length.

Auckland Rail Network

The key benefit to express services is speed. We know that the vast majority of people are going to the city centre and so if we can get them to that destination faster it can help make services more competitive attractive. More attractive services should also mean more patronage which is obviously a good thing.

But how much time do they save. The figures below are from old timetables from when Auckland used to run express trains.

Southern Line

FromToStopping AtMinutesSaving
PapakuraBritomartAll Stops53
PapakuraBritomartManurewa, Newmarket3815
PapakuraBritomartAll stations to Otahuhu458

Western Line

FromToStopping AtMinutesSaving
SwansonBritomartAll Stops53
SwansonBritomartAll stations to New Lynn, Newmarket494

As you can see the savings on the southern line aren’t too bad for the first of the express services on the southern line however the train is only able to achieve that by only stopping at 2 of the 14 stations along the way. In the case of the second express service the train stops at 8 of the 14 stations along the route. On the western line is actually quite small despite skipping all of the closely spaced inner stations, it skips seven stations all up.

Skipping stations isn’t ideal but can be worked around, especially if like New York where there are extra tracks which means the express services don’t affect the frequency of the all stopping trains. However in Auckland that isn’t the case. Further due to the limitations of Britomart we can only run 20 trains per hour on the network divided up as 6 trains per direction per hour on the Western, Southern and Eastern lines and 2 trains per direction per hour on the Onehunga line. Any express train that we run has to come at the expense of one of those services and that’s where the problems really start to come in as any express trains end up lowering the frequency to stations not served by both running patterns.

An example of how services could run was suggested by Dave B in this post.

It is possible to mix limited-stop and all-stop services without any overtaking, but it does disrupt the cherished ’10-min interval between trains’.
Take the Western Line: The express departs Britomart at, say, 00, 20, 40 past each hour, skips Parnell, bypasses Newmarket, first stop Grafton, then selected stops only, from there to Swanson. The stopper leaves Britomart at 02, 22, 42 and proceeds all-stops via Newmarket as now. It arrives at Swanson 2 min before the next express. The stopper takes 55min, the express 49min.

So say you wanted to go to Baldwin Ave, a station that would be guaranteed to be bypassed by any train running an express pattern. Using Dave’s suggestion above it means you only have the option of a train once every 20 minutes. That’s definitely not a turn up and go frequency but one you have to consult a timetable on to prevent long delays. Some suggest that people will only need to do that once however if they’re anything like me their travel doesn’t always happen at the same time. As an example I don’t leave work at the same time every day and arrive at Britomart with the intention of just catching the next train that leaves.

In addition to what’s already been mentioned is also the issue of the New Network which has been designed as an integrated PT network rather an a mode focused one. It will see a lot more bus feed a greater number of passengers on to rail services. Providing consistent and easy connections between those services will be another important step in building patronage.

The decision about whether to run express trains or not is going to differ for each city and for Auckland the decision is between having trains that are frequent but that stop at each station along the way or having lower frequencies but with some trains having faster trips. For me with the system we have I think that we are right to focus on getting frequency rather than speed. Faster speeds *should* come with the electric trains and the faster acceleration they bring will help narrow the gap between the two options further. My position would likely be different if we had the infrastructure and capacity to support express services that don’t get caught behind the train service in front but tat this stage that seems like something.

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15 comments

  1. Given the limiting factor of Britomart pre CRL (i.e. all slots are already taken by the existing all-stops services) could we not run peak hours express services that avoid Britomart altogether? How about an express service that ran along the Western and Southern Lines (thereby serving 34 out of 40 suburban stations). Although it would not go to Britomart, it would get users from the far west and far south into the inner city area far quicker, giving them options to switch to inner city bus services at their choice of Newmarket, Grafton, Mount Eden or Kingsland. Given that many inner city destinations are a good 15-20 minute walk from Britomart this might be a good interim solution until CRL opens (still over 5 years away), without diluting the existing all-stops level of service.

    1. Britomart isn’t the only bottleneck preventing express services. Wiri to Westfield, Penrose to Newmarket, Mt Albert to Newmarket are all stretches where additional traffic holds up existing scheduled traffic and delays compound and spread. Added services have to fit without making things worse either when the network is running smoothly, or when it is frequently not running smoothly. Extra tracks and platforms at express stations is the only meaningful way forward from here.

  2. One express or LS train in the peaks is quite possible and very desirable. Get the third platform at Otahuhu operational and run an all stops train from there following the non-stop( or maybe Panmure only) to Britomart. We’re not talking about all day long. But really, they need to get on with the third main, preferably all the way from Otahuhu to Pukekohe, ASAP.

  3. The post CRL Operational Diagram has 3 peak hour only express trains operating Papakura – Manurewa – Puhinui – Papatoetoe – Middlemore – Otahuhu – Panmure – Britomart – Aotea – K Rd – Grafton. This is intended to increase to 6tph as demand increases. The most important piece of infrastructure to enable this service will be a third main between Papakura and Puhinui.

    Having a seperate track means that the express trains can travel at full speed on this section (I would advocate skipping Manurewa once a 3rd main was available). It also enables the express trains to be timetabled to arrive at Puhinui just before the Eastern Line train from Manukau, leaving plenty of room before the express catches the pervious Eastern Line train.

    Finally a 3rd main Papakura to Puhinui would enable regional trains to avoid getting held up by commuter traffic on this section also.

    Grade separation of the Westfield junction would also be ideal.

    1. I would say that it now appears very unlikely that the 3rd main will be completed, the W2W completion is probably at least 5 years or even 10+ years away and going further south to Papakura or Pukekohe is decades away. The major reconstruction of Middlemore and Manurewa stations plus the several road over bridges needing rebuilt will ensure these extended construction times as none of these issues have yet been addressed.
      The 2018 RPTP that had no change is rail frequencies between 2018 and 2028 has probably removed the need for 3rd main and existing railfreight volumes seem to easily fit between existing metro trains.
      Commencing RR to terminate at Papakura when a minisule capex to complete the 3rd between Homai and Puhinui is probably indicative of no interest in progressing any part of the 3rd main. Made more incredulous when it’s realised the RR trains will proceed north to Westfield once commuters are dumped at Papakura.

      1. The Westfield to Wiri 3rd main is a relatively easy project, it just needs funding. It’s not only to allow frequencies to be increased, but it will allow Southern and Eastern trains to be sped up. They currently have extra fat in the timetable to allow them to depart Britomart and Manukau every 10 mins but be staggered at different intervals between Westfield and Wiri.

        I fully agree with you regarding south of Wiri, there is no real need for this until Regional Rail frequencies are much higher, which is years away. I’d say Wiri to the Purewa Tunnel should be higher priority as this would help with express suburban trains coming from further south.

  4. I don’t think Auckland’s rail network is an odd size. Our network is not a metro, but plenty of metros are similar or greater in length to Britomart-Swanson or Britomart-Papakura. Leave the express’s out. Short dwell times and close headways combined with a third track for non-suburban trains would turn it into a semi-metro.

    1. I agree. Our rail network is very similar in size and operation to an S-Bahn of continental Europe (especially once the CRL is operational).

      It’s relatively long, mostly suburban in focus (rather than an urban metro or rural commuter train), with reasonable but not very high frequencies, regular all-stops trains at stations mostly spaced a couple km apart, and good span of service seven days a week.

      A very close fit to the S-Bahn model: a metro system at a broader scale with broader headways, and few things like expresses or funny service patterns.

      1. Spent five days in Berlin a year or so ago, rode the S-Bahn a lot. It runs on its own pair of tracks (750volt third-rail) adjacent to freight and passenger lines. It’s a suburban metro, mind you, same could be said about much of London Underground as well.

        1. The Caltrain doesn’t have trains running every ten minutes like Auckland does, there are some quite big gaps there even during the peak. It looks like there are five baby bullet services that overtake a train ahead of them, however they only have to overtake one train, whereas an express running in Auckland would have to overtake two or three trains.

          If you look at the timetable the 207 and 217 are scheduled to take 21 mins between San Jose and Sunnyvale, this takes just 15 mins off-peak. These services are held for six minutes to allow the express to pass, I’m not really sure that adding this amount of time to regular services in Auckland is really what we want.

          1. Indeed, and in Auckland large sections of track have trains every five to three minutes in both directions.

  5. The Auckland system simply does not have the capacity or network layout for expresses. Even if you could run some expresses you couldn’t do it frequently enough and the result would likely be crush loaded expresses, that itself would cause delays at stations.

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