A tweet a few days ago from Auckland Transport highlighted for me a major issue with so much of our public transport infrastructure, its lack of redundancy.
The lift is currently still out of service at Henderson Station & we've been advised that the fault may not be resolved until Monday 12/09/2022.
Unfortunately this means that mobility users are unable to access the platform until the lift has been fixed. https://t.co/QZQ4txdwB2
— Auckland Transport Travel Alerts (@AT_TravelAlerts) September 6, 2022
To be clear, people who have mobility issues, such as those with a disability or perhaps a parent with a pram, suddenly can no longer use a key train station on our rapid transit network – a station that is an important link to the town centre and for connections to local buses.
To further put that in perspective, around 24% of all New Zealanders have some form of a disability and I’d expect Auckland to have its fair share of those. Obviously not all people with a disability will have mobility issues that require them to use a lift. But for those that do, public transport may be their only option for independent travel, so not being able to access the station may have significant consequences, especially if they are unaware of the issue until they arrive at the station and find the lift broken.
Equipment like lifts and escalators do occasionally break down but the issue with Henderson, like with so many of our stations, is that Auckland Transport and its predecessors built them to the bare minimum specifications they could get away with. This often happened in a bid to try and get the costs down during value engineering processes because of the very tight budgets for public transport. So in trying to engineer out the costs they engineered out much of the value.
For those that don’t know Henderson, this is what it looks like from the sky. The current station was built in 2007 as part of the works to double track the Western Line. The platform is accessed via an overbridge with most people using the escalators to access the platform on the southern side of the concourse. The northern side features a single lift and some concrete stairs. There is no other access to the platform.
That is not all that’s wrong here. For example, you can see the shelter is only around 30m long and has a similar sized gap between the shelter and the base of the escalators. A lack of shelter at stations has long been a bugbear of mine and I’ve also written before about how we need to improve the layout along with other features of stations, such as the location and number of HOP machines and tag posts. We also want to see more effort put into improving local connections to stations.
For Henderson the best long-term solution is a second station access at the southern end which would both expand the catchment and access to the nearby area slightly but importantly also provide some additional redundancy. There has been talk of doing this as part of a upgrade to the station with additional platforms to support the City Rail Link, but it’s been a long time since we heard anything about that.
Another problem at Henderson is that the size of the lift doesn’t fit an adult with a couple of children and their bikes. Unexpected stresses like that, in which a great idea for an outing suddenly becomes a puzzle of keeping everyone safe, that pushes people to taking the car instead.
Henderson isn’t the only station that has had lift issues either. Swanson has too, where Auckland Transport have been doing maintenance on the lifts since early May and are finally due to finish this week. That work has meant they’ve been out of service between 7am and 5pm. If you have a mobility issue and travel between those times you either need to find another way to travel or hope the next train terminates on the side of the tracks you’re on. I’ve even argued that the additional platforms should be at Swanson.
Swanson’s lifts also have the quirk that they are different sizes, so if your bike is a bit longer than standard, you might find it fits going up and over the tracks, but then not fit going down… which doesn’t really work.
While many of our stations were designed and built before Auckland Transport came into existence, they have had nearly 12 years to do something about it, and haven’t.
Future stations, like those in the Light Rail project, need to be designed with accessibility and resilience at their heart. Will those underground stations have multiple entrances and multiple lifts, or like Henderson, Swanson and others will they they be pared back to just a single lift in a bid to save money? It’s also worth noting that accessing underground (or overhead) stations takes time and the time from the street to the platform isn’t included in the overall travel time assessments.
There is a way to design light rail stations for quick and reliable access though. Surface-level stations are much more accessible to more sorts of people, of all abilities. As Women in Urbanism have pointed out, because street-level stops don’t require stairs or elevators to get to a station, they provide easy journeys for anyone with pushchairs or wheelchairs or accompanying children or even just shopping. You can see and be seen, which adds to the comfort and appeal of city travel.
At the end of the day, stations that are designed well for those with mobility issues will also be great for everyone. We need Auckland Transport to be working to improve our existing stations so that when issues like at Henderson this week happen, they don’t suddenly cut the access to those that need it.