Last week I spent a few days over in Brisbane. I thought I’d put together a few observations about the rail network from while I was there.

It’s not how heavy your rail is, it’s how you use it

Brisbane airport shares a lot of similarities with Auckland in that it sees a similar number of people annually (23 million vs 21 million) and has strong growth forecasts. The airport also happened to be a similar distance away from the existing rail network as Auckland airport is from Puhinui and in 2001 a privately owned rail line, but fully integrated into the rest of the network, opened to serve the airport – with travellers paying a special airport premium to use.

Back in Auckland, far too often discussion on improving public transport to the airport has focused on the mode and not how useful it is. Brisbane is a useful example of how it’s not how heavy your rail is, it’s how you use it that matters. That’s because how long it will take you to get through an airport is generally not something you can plan for, especially as you wait for your baggage and then to get through immigration and customs.

For public transport to be useful it needs to be frequent and this is where Brisbane’s rail connection falls over because off-peak and on weekends services only run every 30 minutes.

As fate would have it, we arrived on a weekend and just as we exited the secure area we could see a train pulling up at the platform, leaving us with a 30 minute wait for the next one.

Of course not only is there a long wait but as mentioned there’s also a premium fare to pay of AU$19 if using a Go Card (the equivalent of HOP).

Trains and operations

Brisbane use a few different generations of trains. The older few generations, like Auckland’s trains, are 3-car trains about the same length as our but operate paired together to form a six-car train. But notably their newest generation of train, which started entering service in 2017 and with some still under construction, are all permanent 6-car trains and are designed to be expanded to 9-cars in future. They also required a new maintenance facility.

We’ve currently got 57 3-car electric trains with 15 more on the way and plans envisage a further 21 to cope with the demand after the City Rail Link opens. But I wonder if in the future we will look to do something similar.

One of my big bug-bears is about how we operate our trains services is our painfully slow dwell times that can take close to a minute per station. While some of that is for technical reasons, such as waiting for the platform on the middle car to extend/retract, a decent chunk of time is wasted with how train managers operate the doors. At a high level their process seems to be:

  1. After the doors have been opened by the driver, wait for passengers to board and alight.
  2. Close all doors but the one they’re in
  3. Check the doors are clear then close their door
  4. Signal the driver who can then move off

Brisbane, like many other cities that have retained train managers, skip step three by having the train manager in the rear driving cab. From there they can lean out the door (or a window) to check all passenger doors have closed and signal the driver. Some other cities solve this by linking up CCTV looking at the platform to monitors positioned for the TM to see, or even have platform staff signal the TM. Implementing something like this could potentially save up to a few minutes per trip.

Cross River Rail

Brisbane has a lot more rail resource than Auckland but has similar issues in that the network through the city is at capacity and preventing more services from being able to run. We were staying in an apartment in South Brisbane from which I could see the station and from there I could see trains arriving in each direction every few minutes.

To address this Brisbane currently digging a new AU$5.4 billion rail line though the city in a project called Cross River Rail. It is described as:

Cross River Rail is a 10.2km rail line from Dutton Park to Bowen Hills, which includes 5.9 kilometres of twin tunnels under the Brisbane River and Brisbane CBD.

The project includes construction of four new underground stations at Boggo Road, Woolloongabba, Albert Street and Roma Street.

It will also deliver upgrades to eight above ground stations including: Salisbury, Rocklea, Moorooka, Yeerongpilly, Yeronga, Fairfield, Dutton Park, and Exhibition.

I took a look at some of the work being done for the Albert St station where trains will be 31m underground (similar to the Karangahape Rd station). Because the route isn’t dug as a cut and cover tunnel the works (so far) feel almost like pinhole surgery in comparison to the open heart variety we’ve seen on our Albert St.

Only one short block of road was closed, and only to cars.
One of the hoardings up on a site under construction
One of the public information ideas I liked was boards like these (double sided) tied around lamp posts giving information and showing people were they can go to get an idea of what the area will look like in the future.

Overall the project is very similar to the City Rail Link in Auckland, both are being built to address capacity issues, both add a few new and other upgraded stations to the network, both are designed to cater to 9-car trains and both are due to open in 2024. It will be interesting to see what impact they both have on their respective rail networks.

Regional Services

For one of our days we decided to take a trip down to the Gold Coast by train and I couldn’t help but think of how similar it could be to services between Auckland and Hamilton if we implemented it in a similar way.

The view from the apartment we stayed in with South Brisbane station in the bottom right hand corner

We boarded a train at South Brisbane and between there and Beenleigh (the end of the red line on the map above) the train only stops four stations. This is helped by about 20km of 3rd main from South Brisbane to Kuraby. As such, the train travelled this approximately 38km in just about 34 minutes, an average of 67km/h. From Beenleigh there are just two stations in the 28km to Helensvale and combined with a straighter and faster alignment which allows the trains to reach 140km/h the train takes just 17 minutes for an average of about 100km/h.

If we had something similar between Auckland and Hamilton with Auckland to Papakura averaging say 65km/h, thanks to a 3rd/4th main, and Papakura to Hamilton averaging 100km/h then it would take just over 1½ hours to get between Britomart and Hamilton. That feels like something that would be quite competitive with driving.

Rail/Light Rail integration

One of the things I was interested to see was the station at Helensvale which is not only a train station but has a bus interchange on one side and the end of Gold Coast light rail line on the other.

There’s quite a different style between the older train station and the more recent light rail station but the integration between the two is easy and works well.

One thing you do have to be careful of is that the light rail runs every 7.5 minutes but the trains only travel in each direction every half hour so the transfer is easy one way but more precarious the other – although luckily we managed to time it well.

Another thing to note, you can see three yellow posts at the end of the platform, they’re tag posts and there’s three more on the other side of the canopy so six in total. Contrast that to Auckland Transport often only having a single tag post at each entrance to a station.


Finally, Brisbane and South East Queensland(Sunshine coast down to Gold Coast) is one of the cities/areas I try to collect data on for comparison given there are a lot of similarities with Auckland.

Overall SEQ as a whole does around 190 million boardings annually with the bulk of that on buses with over 117m trips, trains do 55m, light rail does just under 11m and ferries 6.6m.

From what I can tell within those figures, trips within Brisbane itself are about 152 million. Bus and train numbers have been starting to pick up again recently but they’re still below what they once were despite there being significant growth over the last decade. This means the number of trips taken on PT per capita has fallen from around 86 a decade ago to below 70 now. Over the same period Auckland has increased from about 44 to 62.

Edit: one aspect to all of this I forgot to mention is that the system is much more heavily subsidised than Auckland’s is. On average, farebox recovery for the PT system, the amount of costs recovered by passenger fares, is just 21%, less than half of what it is in Auckland.

There was plenty of other stuff I could talk about but I think that will do for this post.

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  1. One thing i noticed when taking the trains over there were the poor off-peak frequencies. Otherwise a pretty decent system to use.

    1. I think AT have been a bit slack with this message: A 45 minute journey on light rail with a 10 minute frequency will work out quicker for most people than a 35 minute heavy rail journey every 30 minutes. That is the reality of heavy rail via Puhinui – there simply won’t be the demand from the airport to have any real frequency whatsoever unless they run very expensive empty trains.

  2. Loved watching the Gold Coast 600 a couple of weeks ago and seeing flowing commuter traffic, the Light Rail and an international grade motorsport event all running at the same time.

    Meanwhile, Auckland can’t get any of those things, even in isolation. Interesting to see the Light Rail also doesn’t use a third rail unlike all the Auckland renders – anyone know why this might be?

    1. Overhead line is standard: cheap, reliable, effective. Ground level systems are very expensive per meter and unreliable (as little as 1cm of water can shut them down), so they are used as little as possible.

      Gold Coast made the right choice and just used standard overhead line. Sydney acquiesced to the hand wringing politicians worried about ‘visual pollution’ and put in a short bit of wire free on half of George Street.

      Looks like auckland is planning the same for queen street.

      1. Bordeaux certainly ran into problems with its contactless power sysyem, to the point where the city threatened to rip it out. The Bordeaux system isn’t the only game in town, however, and I can’t see a fully buried inductive system having the same issues. What exactly is proposed for Auckland isn’t clear mind you.

  3. I understand some of the rail patronage decline between 2009 to 2011 is somewhat “artificial”, in the sense that:
    — At that time SEQ moved to a new ticketing system and subsequently did away with periodic (e.g. monthly) passes on rail.
    — Analysis of ticketing data suggests the multiplier previously used to convert these periodic passes into trips was too high.
    — This causes a substantial decline in patronage, which was really just patronage reverting to “true” rather than its previously inflated levels.

  4. I’ve been saying for years now that Brisbane actually has a good urban rail system and that it’s underappreciated by Brisbanites themselves.

    The airport link in Brisbane has long been known to be a tourist trap for people going to the gold coast. With the surcharge; you’d often be better off taking a taxi to the airport.

    What’s more impressive to me is the Redcliffe peninsular branch from Petrie station that opened a few years ago and the geographic challenges it faced.

    And the cross river rail will be a great success.

  5. I was in Brisbane last week and spent 2 days in Brisbane testing the Brisbane rail network before taking the Spirit of Queensland train from Brisbane to Cairns.

    Despite Matt’s comment the Brisbane Airport rail connection falls over because off-peak and on weekends services only run every 30 minutes, I had no issue with the 30 minute wait for a Brisbane Airport to Varisty Lakes (Gold Coast) train. During the week days, there are additional services between Brisbane Airport to Roma Street or Park Road or South Brisbane stations.

    I purchased a 3 Day Go See Q ‘tap n travel’ card for A$79.00 that gave me 3 consecutive days of unlimited travel on Translink bus, train and ferry services, the GLink tram Surfers Paradise services and 1 return city to Brisbane Airport Airtrain travel. There is a 5 Day Go See Q card. These cards plus the normal Go Cards can be purchase at the Brisbane Information Centres in the Domestic and International terminals or from Translink service counters at the Airport Domestic and International terminal stations.

    Since my apartment accommodation was directly opposite Roma Street station, I had almost door to door train travel.

    Roma Street Station is the centre of all rail travel in Queenstown as it is the terminal for the XPT train services to/from Sydney, Queensland Rail scenic trains services like the Spirit of Queensland, the Westerner, etc, Airtrain, suburban rail services and when completed the Cross River Rail link. Roma Street is also the terminal for intra Queensland and inter state coach services and Translink bus services.

    There a plans to extend the rail line from Varsity Lakes to Coolangatta airport and GLink tram service to be extend from Broadbeach South to Varsity Lakes railway station.

    After traveling on trains and trams in Melbourne and Brisbane, our existing public transport in NZ is badly planned and disorganised, especially in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, which highlights the need for a dedicated national public transport agency under the Ministry of Transport to take over the planning, providing and co-coordinating, in association with the 16 district and regional councils an integrated, efficient and environmentally friendly sustainable urban, semi rural/rural, intra and inter-regional bus, train and ferry network under 1 brand and 1 ‘tap n travel’ payment/ticketing system. Unfortunately, NZTA nor the 16 district/regional councils are not up to providing efficient public transport services within NZ.

    1. Yes, it’s such a let down to come back to NZ after experiencing Australian city PT and especially inter-regional rail services. NZ is decades behind. Try getting the equivalent to the Go See Q ‘tap n travel’ card in Wellington for example.

    2. “After traveling on trains and trams in Melbourne and Brisbane, our existing public transport in NZ is badly planned and disorganised, especially in Auckland, Wellington”
      Let’s be honest; you could’ve gone to just about any other developed country to see that. Well, maybe except for most of the USA.

      I was under the impression that Christchurch’s buses are reasonably well-organised. They literally don’t have any rail (excluding the terminating long-distance services).

      “which highlights the need for a dedicated national public transport agency under the Ministry of Transport to take over the planning, providing and co-coordinating, in association with the 16 district and regional councils an integrated, efficient and environmentally friendly sustainable urban, semi rural/rural, intra and inter-regional bus, train and ferry network under 1 brand and 1 ‘tap n travel’ payment/ticketing system.”
      The fact is that neither of the two major political parties in New Zealand give public transport much interest. Yet both are enthusiastic about promoting roading projects instead despite their low cost-benefit-analysis ratios. I’m cringing as I see a Labour MP in Lower Hutt throw everything into promoting a new Melling interchange that’s not even really needed and will ironically cause the movement of the Melling Terminus with all its unrealised potential to a worse spot. Public transport has completely slipped off of the radar for the political leadership and much of the ever more automobile-dependent electorate who votes for them.
      So much for this delusion of New Zealand being “clean and green”.

      Maybe it will take any sudden unavailability of second-hand Jap import cars to shock people out of this.

      1. I agree with you. The reason I chose Melbourne and Brisbane as oppose to other countries, Melbourne and Victoria is closer to NZ in regards to population spread around a large major city (greater Melbourne) with all transport service radiating in and out of the major centre to regional communities which is similar to NZ with Auckland being the large major city will all domestic transport links radiating in and out of Auckland.

        With regards to Brisbane, Queensland has been right leaning and so has the Brisbane City Council which have been road fixated. At least the Queensland State Government is now investing in local and regional freight and passenger rail infrastructure and services, NZ is not. Brisbane City Council is still road fixated, doesn’t support LR but is slowly becoming more public transport focus due to state government funding public transport projects in the greater Brisbane area under the Translink brand and public demand.

        Unfortunately, NZ’s ubran and transport planning in based on cheap quick fix 3 yearly planning, which makes roads the cheapest quick fix solutions.

  6. Journey time is a problem for Auckland Heavy Rail. Our operation have excessive dwell time and overly conservative line speed.

    For example the full southern line average speed is roughly 38km/h.

    There is a lot of opportunities to improve that, however AT doesn’t seem to care much.

    1. Why are Auckland’s trains so weirdly slow? 39 to 40 minutes from Newmarket to Papakura.
      With some quite conservative assumptions it would be 33.
      Assumptions to give 33 minutes:
      – line speed 72kph (20m/sec) over 27km = 22 minutes
      – 11 stops with acceleration and braking at 2/3 metres per second per second and 30 second dwell = 1 minute per stop.
      In fact a higher line speed should be possible for much of the route; the actual acceleration and braking figure is probably higher (up to 1m/s/s would be normal for urban electric trains), meaning less time lost; and the off-peak minor station dwell should be no more than 20 to 25 seconds, as is usual in all Australian cities.

      1. You have to remember there are effectively three branch lines that the Southern Line has to deal with… Manukau by Puhinui/Wiri, Onehunga at Penrose and, yes, the Western Line at Newmarket. And then there’s pick up and drop off of train staff at Wiri, which means on about 50% of trains there’s an extra station to stop at. Plus it has to connect with the Pukekohe Shuttle, accommodate the Wellington trains /and/ coexist with all the freight trains.

        And on top of all that people want to add another branch line on to go to the Airport… which won’t give a one-seat ride to half the Southern Line.

  7. I’m staying at Coolangatta this week and on Tuesday decided to go and have a look at the Gold Coast light rail. Took the 700 bus from Coolangatta to Broadbeach South station, 40 minutes on a noisy diesel but at least it is a frequent service every 10 minutes 7 days a week. Transfer to the light rail is simply crossing the platform. I rode the “tram” as the vehicle is described over the intercom north towards Surfers. It was quiet and quick running up the middle of the road as proposed for Dominion Road. Infinitely better than the bus journey. Integrated tickets too so paid no extra for the light rail journey. Why can’t we just get on with it in Auckland when we have a system operating on the Gold Coast to compare with. Oh, that’s right, Twyford took it out of AT hands when they had done all the preparation!

    1. You will find that the GLink tram operates on its on dedicate track lanes and dedicate track ways especially from Surfers Paradise to Helensvale.

    2. “It was quiet and quick running up the middle of the road as proposed for Dominion Road.”
      The G-link runs up the middle of the Gold Coast highway. Until about a decade ago; this was the major interstate thoroughfare with 6 lanes and a generous median strip. Its semi-redundancy since is what has allowed the G-link to use the corridor.

      Dominion Road is not even as wide as the gold coast highway let alone has redundant lanes and a generous median strip to make usage of.

        1. Yes, but they don’t also carry the same volume of automobile traffic as Dominion road (because cars continue on the gold coast highway).

        2. In fairness Dominion Road has also had a bypass built recently in the form of the Waterview tunnels, there shouldn’t be as much through traffic on it as there was previously.

  8. I’ve taken the train to/from Brisbane airport a couple of times. From what I’ve observed it’s expensive, irregular and empty.
    Brisbane airport handles more than 23 million passengers per year vs Auckland airport at 20 million. As they’re a similar size, there’s likely a similar number of surrounding service jobs, and passenger potential.
    If the train was priced normally and had 10min or better frequencies it’d be far more successful.
    Another way to increase patronage would be to offer in town checkin like Hong Kong.

    1. “If the train was priced normally and had 10min or better frequencies it’d be far more successful.”

      It might have more passengers, but at what cost? I am not in favour of subsidising travellers, particularly tourists, by providing them with cheap (subsidised) PT to and from the airport; because while it will be cheap for them, it will not be for ratepayers who will inevitably pay the cost. Air travellers are arguably the best placed to pay higher fares.

      To encourage the use of PT we should price the other options more highly. e.g. the taxi surcharge in Queenstown is $12 – that it perhaps an incentive to use another form of travel. (It is not helpful if it encourages airport pick-ups and drop-offs).

      I believe it is worthwhile to investigate whether the cost of the infrastructure around the airport should be born by airport users. Why should an increasingly luxury activity be paid for by other than the users?

      1. People boarding the train at the hypothetical airport have to pay for a ticket. It would be in the interest of Auckland and Aucklanders that as many airport passengers take the train so why not pay a little to subsidise it?

        But hey; if you’re this tight about this; why not simply have a surcharge for people who don’t board with a regularly-used card?

        1. It’s in the interests of Auckland and Aucklanders that people have access to where they need to go, and to achieve this efficiently and equitably, we need as many people to use public transport as possible. Any investment in transport involving the airport isn’t in any way different to other lines. It needs to be the best use of our transport money.

        2. “As many as possible” means spending your funds where they will have the greatest benefit for each scarce dollar. That ain’t at the airport. It would be best to build the line to Mangere only, and spend the billion dollars of the last couple of km to the airport on another suburban line somewhere else.

          I don’t care about getting cars off the road FYI, it doesn’t happen anyway.

        3. There always seems to be ample cars on the road generated by Auckland airport whenever I use it…

        4. Daniel
          I advocate that our PT pricing model should reward the regular user and encourage people to be regular users. I like the very popular European model where you pay the least if you buy a yearly pass; followed by a monthly; and then a three day pass etc.
          I absolutely agree that Auckland needs the maximum number of people using PT as possible. Because I believe that demand in this case is not solely influenced by price we should be smart about this decision.

    2. The problem with the Airtrain ‘Airport to City’ services, it is a privately owned rail route between Brisbane airport and Roma Street in the city, until 2036, when the route will be handed over to Queensland Rail. Queensland Rail has the contract to provide the rolling stock and customer service functions for Airtrain services

      Since Airtrain services are not integrated into Translink metro train services between the airport and Eagle Junction, Airtrain is not subsidisied by the State Government. Whilst a local can use their Translink Go Card, they are charged the Airtrain fare if travel to/ftom the airport.

      The reason, it appears that not many people use Airtrain services to/from Brisbane airport, alot of visitors are not aware they can travel pass Brisbane city and onto the Surfers Paradise and rest of the Gold Coast. This lack of awareness is due to the fact, you will need to purchase a ‘through ticket’ from the Airtrain website or from the Visitor Information Centres at the domestic and international terminals or the Translink service centres at the domestic and international stations.

      The beauty of train services from the airport, a visitor can travel from the airport to the Gold Coast (Varsity Lakes) on one train or traveling to Surfers Paradise on one train to Helensvale and a tram from Helensvale to Surfers Paradise.

  9. Don’t know if comparing Brisbane-Gold Coast and Auckland-Hamilton is apples with apples.
    One, the former route is much quicker. Two, it has a strong tourism dimension to it.
    No offence to the Tron, but I don’t think many domestic or international tourists will be very interested in a day trip to the Tron via rail.

    1. While Hamilton is no tourist destination; it does have the potential for a successfully patronised railway service for commuters and business travelers. Plenty of Hamiltonians want to visit Auckland.

  10. These 15 car trainsets that are coming now and the 22 that could possibly coming later why ‘O’why did they not make them up as 6 car trainsets ? .

    And Matt l thanks for an interesting post .

    1. There is a simple answer to that, the depot is set up for 3-car trains, they couldn’t service or maintain a 6-car train.

  11. Great interesting post. Think this pretty much says a big part of why things are better there:
    “one aspect to all of this I forgot to mention is that the system is much more heavily subsidised than Auckland’s is. On average, farebox recovery for the PT system, the amount of costs recovered by passenger fares, is just 21%, less than half of what it is in Auckland.”

    In saying that a lot of things AT do just seem dumb but perhaps they are learning.

  12. The original Gateway Bridge was opened in 1986 and the second one opened in 2010, when they were renamed Sir Leo Hielscher Bridges, though most people still call them the Gateway Bridges.
    They cost A$92 million and A$350 million a piece to build and have no public transport on them at all. Yes I know they are toll bridges but the extra cost per person taking a bus across would be small.
    We stay with family in the suburb Carina when we visit Brisbane. The fact that it is a toll bridge doesn’t change which way they go as the alternative is so much longer. To pick us up from the airport it’s a 13km trip and google map says typical times on a Monday morning is 12 to 22 minutes.
    Public transport on the other hand one and a half hours as it requires a bus into South Bank and a train via the central city out to the airport. I think it is ridiclous that so much was spent on the bridges with no option for public transport over them created. Even if you couldn’t do buses to the airport it shouldn’t be so hard to add another station between Southern Cross Way and Gateway Motorway for passengers to transfer onto the train line and take it either out to the airport or towards the central city.

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