On Sunday, the City Rail Link reached its latest milestone with the Tunnel Boring Machine breaking through to the Karangahape Station and right on target – awesome work to all involved.
When completed the CRL will transform our rail network but it will take more time and investment to fully realise the benefits of the City Rail Link. The plans to do that were outlined in the latest ATAP report and would happen over three high-level stages
- Step 1 – this is to enable the CRL to operate on day one and would see the network capacity to the city increased from 15,000 people per hour to 22,500 per hour – this may not seem like much but is effectively the same as adding an 8 lane motorway.
- Step 2 – further network upgrades would see capacity lifted to around 36,000 people per hour – about another 14 motorway lanes
- Step 3 – is mainly about upgrading the network to handle 9-car trains and would see capacity lift to 54,000 people per hour – a further 18 motorway lanes.
While the upgrades as part of Step 1 are underway or due before the CRL opens in 2024, the timing of those future steps will depend on what happens with ridership.
Right now our COVID lockdown has largely wiped out ridership on the network, and the rail shutdowns of the last year haven’t helped either but eventually lockdown will end and it will recover. How we improve ridership to both recover from lockdown and get to steps 2 and 3 above is something I’ve been thinking about recently.
Clearly the CRL on its own will help drive up rail usage significantly. The Western line will see significant time savings from not having to go the long way around the city centre, including changing direction at Newmarket. Meanwhile the new stations at Aotea and Karangahape Rd will make the network more useful to more people on all lines.
There are other improvements underway that will help drive usage too. For example, the Eastern Busway will pour people into Panmure while the new Puhinui Station makes it easier for people accessing the airport. Further south, electrification to Pukekohe will make the train much more attractive; and the planned new stations around Drury will open up the rail network to more people. There will also be a lot more people living within proximity to the network in the existing urban area, particularly out west where there is a heap of development underway right now – the Henderson-Massey local board area has seen more building consents than any other local board area in Auckland.
What concerns me is that Auckland Transport will rely on these high cost improvements and housing changes to drive ridership, and that they’re ignoring/missing some smaller opportunities to make the network more useful and make better use of what we already have. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.
Fixing Dwell Times / Travel speeds
In their Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP), and I’m sure in other documents, Auckland Transport makes the following observation.
Much of Auckland’s public transport network is simply not fast enough to compete with private car travel, even during the peak periods.
As mentioned, particularly from the west, the CRL will result in significant travel times savings. But even those travel time savings are likely based on current train performance and that’s an area where a lot of improvement can be made – this from a post last year comparing Auckland’s average train speeds to what was required in the train tender and to lines in a number of different cities.
One of the key reasons for our poor performance and also one of the most frustrating things about using our trains is simply our stupidly long dwell times. It’s not uncommon for a train to dwell at a station for 50 seconds or more whereas on many other systems, dwell times can be 30 seconds or less. For those further out, the combined delay can add up to five minutes to total travel time.
There are plenty of excuses I’ve seen thrown around as to why we can’t improve dwell times, such as that the doors and the accessibility ramp in the middle car of the train are slow. Yet even on the doors that don’t require a ramp to extend, it takes 7-8 seconds from the time the train stops moving for the doors to be open enough for people to get on/off. By comparison, in some systems overseas the doors will start opening in the last seconds before the train fully stops.
AT and others involved in Auckland’s rail network need to put more priority into getting the technical causes of delays improved. But even without that, there are changes they could make to speed up trains. For example, earlier this year I was on a train where the train manager was pushing to make up for earlier delays and managed to get dwell times down to 30 seconds simply by tweaking the process they used.
The typical process for stops is:
- the train stops and the driver releases the doors.
- the train manager locks out their local door to stop it from closing, waits for people to embark/disembark and then closes all other doors.
- the train manger checks all doors are clear, gets on the train and releases the lock thereby closing their door.
- the train manager signals the driver to depart.
This particular train manager effectively combined steps 2 and 3 above. They started the process of closing all doors, then a second or so later released the local door lock, hanging their head out the door to check the other doors had closed and no one was caught. They pulled their head in before the local door closed on them and then signalled the driver. That simple tweak was all it took to speed up the train.
That’s the sort of tweak that could easily be made to speed up services – and depending on the timetable, may even be enough that it means one less train is needed to run the same level of service.
Operation similar to this is also common on many overseas systems, usually with the train manager stationed in the rear driving cab.
Improving access to stations
Train stations are only useful if people can access them, but our stations aren’t always easy to access. We’ve seen the importance of access first-hand in Auckland, for example shifting the old Boston Rd Station 200m down the track to become Grafton saw it become a much more useful and busier station. Meanwhile in 2018/19 with rail use booming, the only train station to see a decrease in boardings was Papatoetoe, which notably had its northern station access removed as part of the gating project.
Of the Rapid Transit network, AT’s RLTP says:
However, it is currently limited to the rail network and Northern Busway, which provides walk-up access for just over 300,000 Aucklanders.
Yet when talking about improving access, the focus is almost exclusively on big park-and-ride developments – more bike facilities are great, but there’s generally no safe routes to access them.
Making it easier for Aucklanders to use multiple transport modes to complete a trip – in cars and bus, car and train, bike and bus, or bike and train – is also important. As a result there are now just over 6,000 car parks at park and ride sites (10 percent added in the last three years), and more bike facilities at public transport interchanges and in off-street car parks (such as in the Toka Puia car park in Takapuna). More of these improvements are planned at targeted locations across Tāmaki Makaurau.
Yet if you look at our stations and their local street networks, there are often large swathes of area in close proximity to stations that are largely inaccessible by foot – and there doesn’t seem to be any AT priority on changing that.
In some cases, access could be significantly improved with new access points. One good example is at Greenlane where a new station access at the southern end of the station along with around 200m of path alongside the tracks could open up easy walking access to hundreds more homes – it would also be a much nicer way to get to the station rather than the from beside the motorway interchange too. The GIF below shows a 800m walking catchment from the station as it exists now, and if a new bridge were added.
The station even used to have a bridge at the southern end.
Some of the stations where something like this could be useful include Ranui (joining up both sides of Marinich Dr), Sylvia Park with access to Carbine Rd, and restoring the northern access to Papatoetoe.
At other stations, the solutions aren’t as clear cut and at those maybe Auckland Transport need to work with the likes of Panuku and Kainga Ora to buy properties and redevelop them with links added through them. This could add both more housing and better access. For example at my local station, Sturges Rd, redeveloping a few houses could open up easy access to the station by residents of Te Kanawa Cres.
Essentially AT should be looking to maximise station catchments.
All of this doesn’t include even simpler things that could make access easier and more welcoming, such as pedestrian crossings at key points. Again using Sturges Rd as an example, access to one of the platforms is on the right in the image below but there is no pedestrian crossing from which to access it and there is often a steady stream of cars. There’s also very little signage to even suggest the station exists.
Of course these kinds of speed and access improvements are needed not just at train stations, but all over our public transport network. It’s surprising AT doesn’t have dedicated teams tasked and funded to find ways to make these kinds of improvements on an ongoing basis.
What other things do you think AT should do to make our trains (or other PT services) more attractive and useful?