The growth of public transport in Auckland over the last 10-15 years (prior to COVID-19) has been impressive, having nearly doubled to over 103 million trips, although this was off a very low base.
As we’ve highlighted before, much of that growth has come from the Rapid Transit network of our rail lines and the Northern Busway. One thing that has always slightly bothered me about the numbers, particular those on the rail network, is that for all the growth we’ve seen, they’re still seem very small when we compare it to other cities. To explain:
Prior to COVID, the rail network was moving about 22 million trips a year. This is for the entire network of 40 stations across three and a bit lines.
Yet when researching cities overseas, it’s not uncommon to see these kinds of numbers, or more, for a single line. A few examples include
- Perth’s Mandurah Line moves about the same number of people as Auckland’s entire network across just 12 stations.
- Seattle’s single Link Light Rail line was moving about 25 million trips annually, about 81k per workday day with 16 stations.
- Vancouver’s Canada line carries about 50 million trips annually with just 15 stations and its expo line does even more.
There are of many more I could include.
To me, this raises the question of “why aren’t we seeing usage 2-3 times higher than we do?”. Unfortunately, I don’t have the data for Auckland, or these other cities to say definitively but based on what we do have and anecdotal observations:
Our trains certainly seemed busy at peak times suggesting the issue is during the weekday off-peak and on weekends. The little bit of data we do have for this shows that depending on the month, there are between about 60,000 (December/January) and 90,000 (March) trips on a typical weekday. The last annual average before COVID was about 77,000. This suggests 87-88% of all usage happens on Weekdays. This is further backed up by the ridership data AT have released in the wake of COVID which shows that the average weekend day sees about 21,000 trips day.
So why aren’t we getting more usage off-peak. I think there are three key reasons
- The land use around many of our stations doesn’t support or encourage many PT trips outside of the peak. The Western Line seems to do the best here thanks to the numerous destinations along the route.
- Poor Frequencies – off-peak our trains still run only every 20 minutes (and now that at peak too for six months) meaning they’re not turn up and go and if you’re transferring, there’s a risk you’ll end up sitting around at a station for 20 minutes.
- Slow speeds – our trains are operated much slower than they’re capable of, making train journeys less competitive than they could be.
I want to focus particularly on that last point.
The speed of services is something we often talk about, with issues like dwell times still taking way too long etc. But for this post I thought I’d look at it a bit differently and compared it to car travel given that’s the alternative for most people.
Using Google Maps I looked for driving directions between my local station (Sturges Rd) and outside of Britomart. I then used the feature to choose the time and day you want to leave to get estimated travel times changed over the course of the day. For the purposes of this I used a Tuesday and I did this for both directions. The results of this are shown in the chart below and as you can see driving times peak at over an hour. I’ve also included two lines to represent train travel times. The blue line for the most recent timetable prior to the current slowdown and a red line for approximately how fast things could be if the trains were operated at the speeds they are meant to and once we have the City Rail Link. Note: the train times don’t include any waiting time, likewise the driving times don’t include time spent parking.
As you can see, under the current scenario trains are only competitive with driving during the peaks. If you want to travel in the middle of the day the train can take more than twice as long as driving so it’s no wonder so many people choose to drive. You can also see that the red line is firmly inside the ‘driving’ bands throughout the day meaning that jumping on a train actually starts to become competitive with driving. Being (reliably) time competitive will be a big drawcard and even more so at peak times.
I repeated the process for the New Lynn train station too to see how things looked for a station where the road isn’t subject to a big shortcut thanks to the SH16 causeway. There you can see that after the CRL, catching the train from New Lynn becomes competitive with driving most times of the day.
To take this a step further I decided to look at other stations on the Western Line at three different times of the day (instead of the whole day like the two examples above. These are all travel to Britomart and leaving at
- 2am – just to highlight the lowest possible driving time
- 8am – the height of the morning peak, and
- 12:30pm – for an inter-peak view.
What this really highlights is just how much a game changer the City Rail Link is a going to be for Auckland but the west in particular. If supported by good frequencies and good land use, which the new Urban Development rules will help allow, we’ll see a step change in usage bringing the network much closer to the levels seen elsewhere. These improvements will also help those going to destinations other than the city too.