This website has spent well over a decade advocating for better public transport and encouraging Aucklanders to use public transport more, often reminding people that while the system needs to continue to get better over time, it has come a long way since the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s – and that our buses, trains and ferries are probably better than you remember them being if you haven’t ridden for a while.
Sadly, we can’t say that right now. Auckland’s public transport system is a complete mess and will continue to be like that for the foreseeable future unless some radical steps are taken.
Twenty years of hard work and billions of dollars in public investment to drag Auckland’s public transport network into the 21st century, to a point where it was fairly easy to and attractive for people to use, are being undermined by incompetent public agencies and baffling decisions by politicians that should know better. Obviously a lot of what’s happened to public transport over the past couple of years has been out of anyone’s control – thanks to the pandemic. But with nearly all COVID restrictions now gone, that excuse wears extremely thin.
Starting with rail, amazingly it was only a couple of weeks back when KiwiRail and Auckland Transport shocked everyone by announcing that they’re basically progressively shutting down the whole rail system – without any consultation and without a clear mitigation package – for the next two years so they can fix up the track beds. (Edited to add: the shutdown has been very clearly signaled for at least three years – and that is only if it stays on track.)
While of course we need to properly look after and fix up the rail network and we want a network that doesn’t shut down every Christmas/New Year or public holiday, no city that takes its public transport system seriously would ever propose such an extended closure period without a world class mitigation package absolutely locked in.
- New York City spent years planning mitigation packages for a planned closure of the 14th street subway tunnel between Manhattan and Long Island to fix it up after the tunnel was flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – and even then the Governor of New York state ultimately cancelled the plans. Interestingly the tunnel was quietly fixed up through a series of far less disruptive closures.
- When Sydney shut part of it’s Epping to Chatswood line for nine months in 2018/19 as part of the new metro line, they put on up to 110 buses an hour across seven routes, with a mix of all and limited stops, along with some additional bus priority, to give people a viable alternative. They’ve done a similar thing for shutdowns on the Bankstown line – which is also being converted to a metro line.
- And in news to hand: a timely example from Boston. As Mayor Michelle Wu explains in this great interview (click through to read the whole thing) – it’s not just about mitigating the situation at hand. It’s about learning everything you can about how to transform the system that got you here:
City government can be nimble, innovative and move quickly when we choose to, but sometimes it feels as if we don’t have a choice because we’re dealing with a major crisis — public-health-related or infrastructure-and-transportation-related. But the goal, always, is to try to carve out the time and space from the unexpected crisis-level situations that need an immediate response to be able to change systems and get to root causes in a transformational way. We can’t take only safe steps that get us to maybe mediocre outcomes. We have to take risks. Sometimes we will fail, but we will keep learning from what we’re doing.
For example, our experience with the Orange Line shutdown: That entire subway line closed down for major repairs and upgrades. That was the purview of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. The city stepped up to support all of the diversionary transportation, the alternative shuttle service, traffic signals, dedicated bus lanes, making our bike-share system free for 30 days. It went about as smoothly as it could go.
Since the reopening, we’ve kept some of the changes, because many of the ideas that we accelerated and made happen have been helpful for traffic flow and public safety. That’s the goal, to look for opportunities for lasting impact and constantly iterate and show improvements.
More recently, the Western Line has been hugely disrupted by track issues – forcing a service that normally operates every 10 minutes at peak to be curtailed to one that’s operating half-hourly west of New Lynn and every 20 minutes between the city centre and New Lynn with users required to transfer between these services. Quite incredibly, this surprise service disruption for an entire week isn’t so KiwiRail can fix the problem, only so that they can investigate it.
While the fault may be out of Auckland Transport’s control, dealing with customers isn’t and the experience leaves a lot to be desired. For example, yesterday at just after 5pm I went to catch a Western Line train from Britomart. A check of the app told me the next train was 52 minutes away despite services supposedly being every 20 minutes. I was about to give up and find another option but as I was next to the station I walked in double check and found the next train was 12 minutes away. How many people looked at ATs app and just gave up trying to use a train?
And why is there not even a quick paper timetable on their website so people can see what the best service to catch is for the best train to train connection at New Lynn.
Things are no better for those wanting to catch a bus. A massive shortage of bus drivers means that huge numbers of services continue to be randomly cancelled each and every day. Barely an hour goes past on Twitter without seeing someone posting a pained screenshot of multiple cancelled bus services:
Numbers vary, but back in July there were over 2000 cancelled bus trips per day in Auckland. Apparently there’s a shortage of around 500 bus drivers across the region – with poor pay and conditions meaning that drivers continue to leave the industry and move to other roles. Strict immigration policies seemingly prevent these shortages from being addressed, and Aucklanders continue to lose trust in public transport that has taken decades of effort and billions of dollars to build.
Ferries passengers aren’t getting off any easier either. Fullers are also short of staff and ferry passengers are reminded that they’re unimportant, with services cancelled to accommodate a cruise ship docking.
Due to incoming cruise ships, the following Bayswater ferry service has been replaced by taxi.
Auckland to Bayswater
Use Journey Planner on AT Mobile or visit https://t.co/o4p9zzsu3n for more public transport options. ^WC pic.twitter.com/0tQIgpMdf0
— Auckland Transport Travel Alerts (@AT_TravelAlerts) October 18, 2022
All up, this is catastrophic for Auckland and deeply frustrating for those – like us – who are seeing years of effort unwound. But especially at a time when we have a government that supposedly wants a transformational improvement to public transport to help achieve ambitious emissions reduction goals. We’re not moving forwards right now, we’re going backwards at full speed.
So, what could be done about this? I think there are a few big steps that need to be taken over the next few months to get things heading back in the right direction – to help ‘win back’ Aucklanders’ trust in public transport that has been so severely damaged in recent times.
- The government needs to send Kiwirail back to the drawing board over the extended rail closure that’s planned for the next two years. We’ve heard from some in the industry that with a little bit of additional machinery and some better ways of working, like is used overseas, it would be possible to dramatically reduce the length of closures. This needs to happen.
- Auckland Transport needs to introduce a temporary new bus timetable that they can actually confidently run on a daily basis with the number of drivers there are. This would allow some good strategic thinking about which services are a priority to continue to run and which services can be cut for now until we have enough drivers to reintroduce them. While on the one hand I hate to see what this would do to our network, having a ‘pretend timetable’ at the moment is just a lottery for passengers. If bus companies don’t want to co-operate, then Auckland Transport needs to start fining them for not fulfilling their contracts for operating services. Fine them until the risk of going broke means they co-operate.
- Bring in a huge number of bus drivers from overseas. With steps already taken in recent months to improve pay rates and conditions for bus drivers, opening up immigration to fill critical shortages of bus drivers in this area could be a useful tool. Maybe focus on some Ukrainian refugees or experienced bus drivers who might like a better life in New Zealand? Whatever, just move quickly to get a heap more people into the country who can drive our buses.
- AT need to do everything they can to quickly speed up services. On trains this should mean addressing longstanding issues like long dwell times and removing unnecessary slack from timetables. For buses, a programme of quick bus priority measures is needed as well as perhaps things like rationalising bus stops – which in some places can barely 200m apart – this was meant to happen as part of the rollout of the new network during 2016-18.
- Extend half price fares for the foreseeable future. The one slight saving grace with the absolute joke that’s public transport in Auckland at the moment, is that we are at least paying a lot less for the completely rubbish service we are getting. The idea of doubling fares in January next year – as currently planned by the government – is frankly laughable right now and would probably be the final nail in the coffin for public transport in Auckland and around the country.
These five steps will not solve all the underlying issues facing public transport in Auckland. That will continue to require lots of effort and lots of investment over the years and decades to come. But they would ‘stop the rot’ as the saying goes, and be a step towards restoring some confidence in the network and undoing the damage to people’s confidence that has occurred recently.