Friday saw Auckland’s entire rail network melt down following a major signal fault at Britomart and causing massive disruption. Mayor Phil Goff later confirmed the fault impacted both primary and back-up systems.
Signal system failure. Both and primary and back up. The third back kicked in but it had reduced capacity.
— Phil Goff (@phil_goff) January 25, 2019
While we don’t yet know what caused the signals and their back-ups to fail, it is something that simply should not happen. Serious questions need to be asked of Kiwirail as what went wrong and what is going to be done to prevent it from happening again. It also brought back memories of a power failure in the control room in Wellington in 2012 that had a similar impact and a 2013 outage that also took out primary and secondary systems. What’s the point of having back-up systems if the back-ups fail anyway?
I don’t want to spend too much time on the cause of the fault, nor the communication from Auckland Transport, we’ve written countless posts on that subject. Instead, I thought I’d share my experience which I think highlighted some of the big weaknesses and opportunities for making our public transport system work for more people.
With no trains, I needed to find another way to get to work. For those that have read about my commute before, I recently moved offices and so now need to travel the Smales Farm busway station. My usual commute usually involves catching the train from the Sturges Rd Station to town where I transfer to a NX1 service.
I didn’t find out about the issues till I arrived at the station at which time I had to think though my options. I quickly discounted the option of going and getting my car and driving as parking options are limited. I couldn’t consider riding my bike to work as my bike was already at work. So next I thought about bus options and that perhaps I should try the 120 bus that goes from Henderson to Constellation where I could transfer to a busway service. This is shown below.
I hadn’t tried an Upper Harbour bus since well before the rollout of the new network with the old 130 service which at the time was a contender for one of our worst bus routes. The new network had fixed some of the big issues with the route, making it a bit more direct but there are three key reasons why I hadn’t tried it before now.
A route over the upper harbour has long been on maps as a future rapid transit route but even following the new network, AT have continued to treat it as an afterthought and it only runs at 30 minute intervals. As Jarrett Walker says, frequency is freedom and this service isn’t anywhere near frequent enough to use reliably.
The service does happen to run past the Sturges Rd station and upon checking AT’s app I found I was in luck with a bus due in just five minutes. Had I been running late and arrived for the following train I would have been out of luck on this. The bus arrived but was fairly empty, having about 5 other people on board (most are behind me).
The first major issue with the service quickly reminded me of why I hadn’t given it a go before. It is slow with the timetable suggesting it will take over an hour to travel about 25km.
On a completely empty road the driver was crawling along which I assumed to be because he didn’t want to get too far ahead of the timetable. We did however start picking up a handful of passengers along the way until we reached Westgate, where despite the driver having been driving as slow as he possibly could, we still arrived ahead of time. The driver promptly turned the bus off leaving us to sit and wait. Some of you link users will know what this is like and it’s immensely frustrating from a passenger point of view.
About 5 minutes later we got underway again on our journey down towards Hobsonville Point. Again it was a slow crawl and upon reaching the outskirts of Hobsonville Point we took another break for a few minutes. By this point there were about 15 passengers on the bus (a couple had hopped off along the way too.
After getting underway again we got to enjoy a brief burst of speed as we crossed the harbour on the motorway before diverting back through Greenhithe. The Greenhithe diversion is one of those trade-offs that planners have had to make, sacrificing directness for usage – annoying for those longer distance passengers like myself but great if you live in the area and want to catch a bus. About half a dozen did so the bus filled up a little more.
The timetabling on this route clearly needs some work and is one of the reasons I had dismissed using it after the new network. Fixing the timetable is an easy win that could shave 10-20 minutes the journey. It begs the question of why it hasn’t happened yet.
Upper Harbour Dr
The third and final reason I have avoided this service is Upper Harbour Dr. I use the road when I ride to work and for some of the year it isn’t too busy but particularly around February to April it gets completely jammed as a result of congestion on Albany Highway which the road connects to. Sometimes cars can be queued over 3km back from the intersection and the thought of being stuck in that sends shivers down my spine.
Again luck was on my side and the road was clear, as was Albany Highway, perhaps some people had taken an extra long weekend. Thanks to this we arrived at Constellation Busway Station 5-10 minutes early at which point all 20+ passengers disembarked and walked straight across to catch busway services. Further proof that people will transfer.
After a short trip down the busway I had reached Smales, probably a few minutes earlier than I would have had the train been working normally. This also had the added advantage of not passing through the city centre fare zone so only counted as a 3-zone fare instead of a 4-zone for my usual commute.
I couldn’t help but think how much more useful the service would be if AT could get the timetable right and do so reliably. A journey time of 45-50 minutes from Henderson to Constellation is still too long but could be feasible instead of the 1hr 7 minutes the current schedule allows for. For many along the route that would mean a much faster journey and might be enough to make PT viable. I for one would use it regularly as it would be much faster than the train alternative.
I also expect that this route is not alone in having these issues. Routes that don’t travel to the city centre seem to be almost forgotten about by AT unless they’re looking for services to cancel to fund more peak buses to the city. Yet these routes have an important role to play and fixing them can help make the network more of, well an actual network.