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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. 2am one is interesting, you can probably add 3-4 hours wait for an actual PT service also… thats another factor that really drives people towards driving too. If you do shift work and there’s certain shifts you can’t make it to/from by PT you are more likely to just rely on driving than mix.

    Example when I used to do night shift 00:00-08:30, the last inbound train Sun-Thurs was around 21:30 (its still not far from that). Quickly got tired of arriving at work nearly 2 hours early just to make PT work. So had to drive in during motorway closures at night and back home during peak.

    Similarly when shift was 15:30 to 00:00, driving in during early peak and back during motorway closures. Time consuming drive, no alternatives as trains stop around 22:00.

    I dont even bother with PT at all anymore, 35min by bike vs 1hr 20m-ish by train+bus :/. Oh and its 24/7. Wish I considered it back then.

    1. To add to that even on day shift 07:00-15:30 PT wouldnt work if you did weekends too, as first train doesn’t make it in time (especially with rail buses). So if you worked Wednesday through to Sunday, would you train 3 days and drive the other 2?

      I think I did for a bit but you end up just sticking with the mode that works consistently…

      1. Yeah, I am a non-car owning shift worker, and until recently lived in the CBD. The unavailability on weekends for early shift starts (7am) stopped me from moving out of the CBD until recently when I started to work from home anyway.

    2. I agree that they finish too early but there must be a point where it would be cheaper to give every night shift worker a subsidised uber ride rather than run trains through the night.

    3. If loadings on trains at night are low then they should be replaced with rail buses. What’s the difference you still get home. Plus Kiwirail has additional time for track maintaince. And bring on electric buses for rail replacement. Also improve or streamline the rail replacement routes and provide time displays at all replacement bus stops. Many times I have read comments and articles on this website advocating mode neutrality when it comes to public transport routes.

      1. If the rail bus took the same time as the train then sure, Zürich for instance runs buses at night rather than the whole tram network, however, the rail buses in Auckland take 2-3x as long as the train meaning no one would catch them either – creating a vicious circle. People won’t take the train in the morning as their only option is a very slow bus ride home. The aim shouldn’t be that every service is full all the time–less busy services enable many other journeys on the busier services to take place. If we cut the train network back to just services during peak, we would get a large drop off of numbers on those services as well.

      2. Mode neutrality applies when using the same corridor. Rail buses use a different corridor and are particularly slow as they use the road network to access rail stations.

        Their only real purpose is to meet obligations to provide a service between stations, many will just use the regular bus network for their journey as it is often quicker.

      3. Buses late at night should be able to travel significantly quicker than at peak.
        So only run trains to Manukau with buses from there to Papakura and Pukekohe. So no Southern or Onehunga trains with passengers travelling on Western line trains to Newmarket and then Southern and Onehunga rail Buses to Otahuhu and Onehunga. Not to sure how far Western trains need to run late night don’t go out there.
        Rail Buses and the route they travel on should be the best they can be because they will always be with us. Passengers will learn quickly how to use them just as they have quickly picked up using the new Network.

        1. One of the features of the New Network is that things have been made “regular” – both in terms of timetable and route. To change mode from train to bus in the evening would be counterproductive because it would create uncertainty in the system. Sure, regular passengers may “get used to it”, but for non-users it would be just one more reason why they will remain non-users. Not a very smart idea IMO.

        2. That’s why you have the app on your phone. You look at that it tells you a train is leaving station A and you need to go to station B then transfer to a bus to get to station C where you are going then you might need to catch a local bus walk or pick up your car or bike from the park and ride. It’s just like any bus trip on the new network which requires a transfer. What’s hard about that. Railways are multimodal for freight and passengers they depend on having sufficient passengers or freight to make them viable. If volumes fall below the this is the ridicules level at a certain time of day then buses should be substituted.

        3. Royce, I disagree.

          First, systems need to be intuitive, regular, universally accessible and resilient. Phone apps are not universally accessible and they introduce resilience issues – they are useful as an extra layer of customer experience, not as the backbone of the system.

          Secondly, off-peak usage increases substantially once the network matures and people can use the network for all sorts of trips and they experience proper mobility freedom. Killing that maturation process by nipping off-peak usage in the bud is counterproductive. Shifting to buses does exactly that.

          It’s good to look for value-for-money, but this one works against improving the system. There are plenty of other places to make better decisions that combine value-for-money with network improvements.

        4. Royce – customers have already had years to get used to rail buses and by and large they have, predominantly through avoiding them at all costs.

        5. A Railway station is a transport hub. When you get there you know what you need to do next. If its shut then you know you have to catch the rail bus. If you arrive on a rail bus then you know your next leg will be the same as if you arrived by train. That is why the the rail bus system need to be as good as it possible can be. The rail network cant be open all the time it needs time for maintenance and from time to time it will be effected by incidents. Also some time it is impossibly uneconomic to run near empty trains. Near empty trains also create a security issue. I believe there should be a coherent strategy of rail replacement buses in place so passengers can be guaranteed a journey no matter what. This is more important than a late night traveler’s journey being a little bit longer. Knowing you can get there is more important than speed in the final analysis. I also believe rail replacement buses should be used to run off peak services when the Hamilton Auckland train starts running later this year. This will promote the formation of a true Auckland Hamilton public transport corridor and not just a Hamilton Auckland commuter train.

        6. Good thing re the app and rail buses fairly recently is that normally they show the buses correctly and clearly in the planner etc. before that it was a big unknown.

          Putting that aside a big step up for overnight or rail replacement buses would be to double their frequency of what ever rail service they are replacing to make up for the lack of speed and capacity. Either that or a stable always every 15 mins replacement bus capacity.

  2. Sturges Road is a great station – a limited park and ride, access from multiple points serving different parts of the suburbs around it. I’d love to see these figures for the voyage home as well, given how much a mess the causeway can be.

  3. It also highlights the importance of living at your local station and the importance of running a train every minute of the day. Otherwise you would have to add on the walk to the station (say 10 minutes) and half the headway been trains for waiting (5 minutes or 10 minutes during the reduced services). Including those times makes them almost the same now at peak times.

      1. Yes and then he assumed zero walk and zero wait in his graphs. Adding these in and the post-CRL curve will be where his blue current line is.

        1. Maybe then would have to add in time taken for drivers to find a car park and walk from carparking building to workplace.

        2. There are other variables too, like cost. There is value in reducing the variables for analysis, it doesn’t mean they are ignored.

          Traffic Engineers certainly believe economists when they say a few seconds of drivers’ time is worth spending millions and billions on, so surely it is worth looking at the time of people when they aren’t driving a car too?

        3. Sure Chris. It is $7.80 per hour for commute time for car drivers and $7.80 per hour for bus passengers who are commuting. Or each hour you can reduce their commute by has a value of $7.80 regardless of whether they are driving or riding in a bus or on a train. (Table 15 MBCM NZTA). That is the resource cost. The behavioral cost or willingness to pay is higher for the car driver. ($7.80 for the car driver and only $4.70 for someone sitting on a bus Table 14).

        4. So miffy, how would the transport modelling change if the time for a seated bus passenger not going to work was costed at $7.80/hr too, instead of $3.05. How would the BCR change if someone travelling for work purposes was also costed at $7.80/hr, instead of $23.85?

        5. 1/ Fewer people would use the bus. The model costs are disincentives to use that mode (in the model) ie the higher the cost for a mode the fewer people the model should allocate to that mode.
          2/ The BCR would reduce as the lower the resource cost for time the lower the benefits of a time saving project.
          The important change is all modes now get the same resource cost, so time is treated the same regardless of mode. That is a step forward from where we once were.

        6. Thanks. And do you know what data source they use to work out whether an interpeak rail passenger is working – $23.85/hr, or not working – $6.90/hr?

        7. Oh no, I see, that’s decided by the traffic modelling.

          But won’t the traffic modelling assume that each trip for work purposes during the day involves a choice of driving or PT – when in fact the person may have come by PT and not have access to a car? It wouldn’t include any impact on mode choice from the initial journey of the day, would it?

          So “work-related journeys” are a proxy for driving, given what Matt’s showing, more so than they should be?

        8. The models used for rail not follow individuals throughout the day and as far as I know the work trips are treated independently of home to work trips. But that doesn’t mean it cant put work trips onto PT if it makes sense to do so.

    1. What about the time (or extra time if using it more) taken to maintain a car?
      – Finding, purchasing & selling your old one
      – WOF’s
      – Repairs
      – Checking & maintaining oil, water, fluids & tyre air pressure etc
      – Cleaning them inside and out
      – Admin for rego’s and insurance etc (this could match the AT Hop card admin (purchasing, topups/auto-topup maintenance & checking etc time perhaps)

      1. This is the big win – when you can go without a car at all, or cut back to one car per household. If you end up occasionally needing a car after all, use car sharing (e.g. city hop) or a taxi.

  4. I wonder how much of a difference off-peak fares would make?
    (or even heaven forbid a reasonably priced weekly/monthly HOP pass)

  5. Matt with graphics like these you should be working for MoT.

    They cut across the ideological dispositions of:
    (car=flexibility and freedom) v (train =oversubsidised and rigid).

    But regrettably there is no longer the political capital to burn in Auckland for really large scale public transport work that disrupts the city on the CRL scale. Even with the projected travel benefits as you describe.

    I think CRL is the high water mark for projects of this nature here.

    1. We need to ensure the political capital to demolish houses for climate-worsening and congestion-causing roads is also burnt.

    2. Where do you get the idea that serious political capital has been burnt through building the CRL? The number of votes lost through going ahead with this project would be tiny.

    3. I suspect National’s policy announcement for the construction of a combined road and rail tunnel under the harbour would be substantially more disruptive than the present CRL works and would leave a permanent scar at the point of entry – not really a thing of beauty to behold.

  6. Those graphs do tell a sorry story for sure. But I do wonder what the experience is like for those attempting to use PT that do not live anywhere near a train/busway station? The reliability of the connection particularly towards the less frequent local service on the way back probably also plays a huge role. After all who wants to use a super frequent service (like the busway one) just to be dumped at the station for a long (20 min) wait?

    1. My situation exactly. 309 is every 30mins but connects to frequent services.
      Mangere bridge to manukau is 15-20 mins by car. 1 hr+ by several buses. Although bus is cheaper than driving probably, the time taken is just too long.

  7. Interesting to read about the low base user per line but have you accounted for population density? I am sure the Vancouver and Seattle have a high population density which may explain the greater number of passenger per line?

    1. I wondered about population density too. Public transport becomes so much more viable when you increase population density. I’ve often wondered why building codes don’t automatically allow high density along arterials which have a good public transport service? I would much prefer putting in more apartments there rather than greenfields developments eating up farmland or bush, with long commutes.

  8. Perth’s Mandurah line takes just 51 minutes to cover 70.1km stopping at 12 stations. How long does it take to get from Papakura to Britomart? A distance of 29.42km.

  9. Isn’t the offpeak difference between Auckland, and Seattle and Vancouver our motorway system? Our motorways are busy right through the day now. People drive if they have the option. Public transport is an inferior substitute. You use the train or bus if driving isn’t an option or if the delay on the motorways is just too high.

      1. Seattle has the I-5 passing next to Downtown and an additional freeway standard tunnel (that replaced the infamous Alaskan Way Viaduct).

        Vancouver’s freeways either stop well short of the city (often not too far from the outer ends of the skytrain network) or – in the case of the Trans-Canada Highway – bypass the city to the north-east.

    1. Perhaps, miffy, you should read the post?

      Isn’t that difference all explained, in fact isn’t that the entire point of it?

      1. Maybe I am a bit slow today but I read it as saying we need to speed up the trains. I must have missed the bit that said Vancouver has hardly any motorways and none serving the CBD and Seattle just sucks if you are driving.
        I will read it again but I would be very surprised if Matt ever described public transport as an inferior substitute.

        1. The bit you seem to struggle with is that all these various parts are dynamic and subject to change. The post is about improving the alternative to driving to make it a more viable option (note; is complementary to driving, not substitutive, ie the tracks are not going to replace m’way lanes).

          The other thing that is likely to change is the driving time, which will certainly lengthen as the city grows, esp as it grows out, unless that is, we make some big effort to improve the quality (incl time) of the alternatives, to draw increasing numbers away from the driving network.

          So it is puzzling why a driving fan would take such a binary and negative attitude to plans aimed at saving the driving experience from its own inevitable quality and utility decline; from itself.

        2. But Miffy, if you’re so negative about building the CRL, what is your alternative suggestion for keeping a growing metropolis like Auckland moving? More roads and cars? More buses and bicycles? Lots of light rail in the streets? Or do nothing and just hope?
          Or have you a bright idea that I have missed?

        3. Any of those is better than taking the public transport budget for a generation and destroying it. For the money they are spending we could have had big useful projects like a North Western busway or light rail AND dozens of little improvements. Good luck funding PT after people realise how much has been wasted on CRL.

        4. “Good luck funding PT after people realise how much has been wasted on CRL.”

          Can’t wait til Miffy is proved wrong when the thing is eventually opened along with the many other related improvements.

          I think it was such bit project that really central government should of funded the lot but wasn’t primarily due to the National Party government being so against it philosophically. This could still be done or other PT projects that follow for Auckland could be more centrally funded for a while to make up for this huge Auckland money hit.

        5. If the justification for CRL were travel benefits then yes you would know one way or the other when it opens. But this turkey was justified on ‘Wider Economic Benefits’. So no matter what happens when it opens you are not going to see the benefits because they are not going to measure them. Even if it were full during the peak hour on opening day that might not be sufficient to justify the cost because the cost is just so enormous. When a project gets the majority of its benefits from Wider Economic Benefits it is a good sign the project is a dud from a transport perspective. As with Transmission Gully someone somewhere will want some answers and it will get a hell of a lot harder to fund even very good projects.

        6. I know right? So terrible to invest in things for wider economic benefits, like improving lives, increasing jobs, improving places, air quality and shit like that instead of the only real thing, which of course we all know is; temporary faster car journeys…, what a crazy world that would be!

          Now back to proper things like how great it is to be gifting another $400m to the fine private sector to complete that great ziggurat through the barren hills north to drive faster away from our little quake-prone bureaucracy + fishing village at the bottom of the island. A project so vital for transport benefits that we can’t add a tiny toll to it, as then no one would drive it… no matter, the kids will happily stump up for the 25 years of hundreds of millions of payments to fancy banks for shits and giggles…

        7. Except in this case ‘Wider Economic Benefits’ are not wider economic benefits at all. They are the sum required to lift the actual transport benefits up to justify the cost of the project. Conveniently they can also be increased throughout the project each time costs blow out. Miraculously the additional WEB discovered by the consultants always match the cost blow outs dollar for dollar.

  10. great work Matt.

    The New Lynn chart is perhaps the most instructive, as it shows the value of incremental improvement. With even modest increases in service quality travel from that destination would be completive all day, pre-CRL.

    Happily CRL will do that and more, but we still should be holding all parties feet to the fire to remove delay from the whole network with these current works.

  11. Good post, again demonstrate the importance of journey time.

    Yet the kiwi rail/Transdev/AT are so laid back and little progress has been made ever since electrification.

    More patronages means the senior managements got more work to do and carry more risks. Since the whole organization is bureaucratic they are not motivated to take more patronages.

    I would predict even after CRL opens, the optimization and speed will only improves marginally. It will no where as efficient as the red line.

    The only way to fix it, is to change the incentives of that bureaucratic organizations to encourage patronage growth benchmarked against international cities.

    1. Management at AT are not motivated to increase patronage because the organisation is bureaucratic?

      Honestly, what baloney. Patronage is THE factor that everyone focuses on to determine success or failure of the operation. And up till COVID patronage was growing steadily at rates any private enterprise company would have been proud of.

      AT may be bureaucratic but there’s no evidence whatsoever that this is directly affecting patronage. Just a cheap AT-bashing shot.

  12. One of the features of the New Network is that things have been made “regular” – both in terms of timetable and route. To change mode from train to bus in the evening would be counterproductive because it would create uncertainty in the system. Sure, regular passengers may “get used to it”, but for non-users it would be just one more reason why they will remain non-users. Not a very smart idea IMO.

  13. This all presupposes that the tracks actually work. A prolonged network shutdown or “go slow” could rapidly destroy faith in the network.

  14. Much of the thinking on the CRL is deeply flawed. This is because its potential varies greatly depending on how well it’s potential is leveraged, and this is not considered deeply enough.
    For example, if the CRL was the catalyst for thousands and thousands of apartments being developed in the next 10-20 years on and close to stations, then it’s likely to generate significant benefits.
    The problem – as I have canvassed here frequently – is that with the high cost of building apartments and the need for profit margins, the market can only deliver mid-high to high cost residential apartment development.
    This places limits on the extent to which we will see apartment development realised. ie. it will be patchy and sporadic.
    Conversely, if the government uses its extensive powers under the Urban Development bill over coming years, we could realise great benefits leveraged off the CRL.
    We need much more joined up and strategic thinking,

    1. Of course if we don’t need to build thousands and thousands of apartments that would be even better. Think of the carbon saved.

      1. Yeah ok…but assuming growth (even just moderate) and the need to respond to it, much better to have apartments next to train stations than remote Greenfield development.

      2. We have four options:
        Build thousands of apartments
        Build thousands of detached dwelllings at the urban fringe
        Have 100,000s of people homeless

        If you don’t support apartments on the basis of carbon output then you are an ecofascist.You’d rather a fascist hellscape than any carbon emissions at all.

        1. Still stuck in the belief that it’s a growth mentality huh?

          It’s not a growth mentality, it’s just reality. It’s what cities do all around the world, they grow.

        2. The ‘Have 100,000s of people homeless’ option was chosen and implemented a long time ago.

          Judging from engagement between public, residents associations and the council it is the most popular option.

        3. Guys, let’s try to appreciate that we’re all wanting the best for our people.

          Zen Man, I’m with you that we need government apartment building at scale. But we can also continue to shift regulations and policy to make apartment building the preferred model. Ockham think we’re there already and that it’s just perceptions stopping other developers. Change policy to stop the sprawl and we’ll soon see what else needs changing.

          Tis I, yes carbon has to be a major consideration, and that means properly investing now in what will set our kids up for low-carbon living and low-carbon maintenance requirements, ie apartments not sprawl. It doesn’t mean leaving people homeless.

        4. Luckily we don’t need eugenics or any other dastardly plan.
          We just stop importing people.
          Then we can catch up with the shortfall.
          You can do that with apartments if you want I couldn’t give a rats arse but if we keep growing the population and everything else along with it you’re posing into the wind.

  15. It would be interesting to see how the travel times in the graph compare with the rail bus replacements from the same pairs of stations. In evaluating the CRL times off peak it’s worth noting that these will only be accurate when trains are actually running.

  16. It would be interesting to do a similar comparision for southern trains, with and without express services, assuming quad tracking.

  17. Regarding speed of train journeys – this is partly about actual train speed once in motion but largely about excessive dwell times at stations. I did some investigation last year of a series of small delays built into the existing system that collectively add up to minutes of extra time for every trip. Some of these could be dealt with by less conservative protocols for trains arriving at stations, doors opening, doors closing and trains departing stations. This is particularly bad at stations adjacent to level crossings. By my calculation this could save about half a minute per station (ie. over 5 minutes on the Western Line from say Henderson to the City). Even greater savings could be made by improving the train control system from ETCS1 to ETCS2 as in most of Europe and parts of Australia. Upgrading the system would require significant investment and take some years to implement – but if we started now it might be ready for the much greater frequencies that will be possible once CRL is completed in late 2024.

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