Decades of neglect and under-funding are the fundamental reason for the fragility of Auckland's commuter rail system. Central and Regional Government each share some of the responsibility for the delicacy of Auckland Rail which comes under strain at peak time - like any network system.
But it's not that simple. We should be able to do better with what we have. The public should be able to rely on the institutions that are responsible for governing and operating Auckland commuter rail to provide services that are safe - irrespective of the delicacy or robustness of the network. It should not be up to the public to carry out a risk assessment everytime they give up their cars and follow advice to take public transport.
Auckland Rail is an accident waiting to happen in peak times.
While it was my responsibility chair Auckland Regional Transport Committees, I became aware of one of the unfortunate legacies of Auckland's rail neglect. And I have reason to believe that problem still hasn't gone away. This experience was during 2005. Auckland rail services at the time were only around 60% reliable - that is - around 40% of rail services arrived or left at times that were significantly different from timetable, driving commuters up the wall, and away from rail.
At the time, the CEO of Connex which was responsible for operating the trains under contract to ARTA (Auckland Regional Transport Authority), was Chris White. He's now with Veolia in Melbourne. He had huge experience and commitment, but I found it was largely ignored by Auckland Regional Council (ARC) politicians in particular, who were determined to stretch the fragile network to its limits in order to meet ill-founded public expectations about service levels.
I talked to Chris and asked him, "why is the service so unreliable...?" because I really didn't know, and because I thought I should know, in order to more effectively chair relevant committees. He answered, "the timetable's too tightly wound...". I had no idea what he was talking about. So I asked him.
He explained further, "you guys want us to deliver 10 and 12 minute services, with trains and systems that keep falling over, and we just can't do it, not with the best will in the world...". I was learning.
Back at the ARC, in a sort of populist hope over experience way, politicians had been egging on officers and staff, putting pressure on an inexperienced Board of Directors at ARTA, who were bullied into accepting completely unrealistic performance targets for Auckland's fledgling rail system.
With the reluctant support of ARC politicians, I made a presentation to ARTA's Board and senior staff, asking them to "unwind the timetable", and adopt 15 minute headways. Which they gratefully did. Within a week or two the service reliability performance was better than 95%.
The network is stronger today than it was then. But not much stronger. And there is a continuing history of political interference and politicians turning a blind eye to the fundamentals of what makes for a safe, frequent and reliable operation. That problem has not yet been sorted by changes in governance arrangements.
Wisconsin Rail states: "Commuter rail will provide an additional transportation choice and improve mobility by connecting suburban and urban areas. It will help connect workers to their jobs and provide an alternative for those who cannot or chose not to drive. It will also provide rail safety benefits through crossing and infrastructure improvements..." The city defines commuter rail: "passenger rail operating primarily oon existing freight and/or intercity passenger railroad tracks on a separate right-of-way between and within metropolitan and surburban areas... commuter rail usually operates during peak travel times with limited stops and in conjunction with other transit modes as part of a regional transit system..."Now there's not much in there that you could take exception to, or even that is different from Auckland. But there are some key points:
provide rail safety benefits through...crossing improvements separate right-of-way connecting urban and suburban areas ...peak times with limited stops...
Auckland has consistently ignored the real threat to safety, and to frequency and speed of service, that is posed by the dozen or so dangerous level crossings that interrupt rail's right-of-way across the network. While budget was planned for this in 2006, almost nothing was allocated, and little was spent. Instead short term projects were pursued that had the support of one or two politicians. This problem still besets Auckland rail planning.
Which brings me to peak time travel. Which includes events.
Crowd Control at Victoria Station: The Underground station at London Victoria facilitates around 80 million passengers per year. Due to severe overcrowding, crowd control is in place during the busiest times. This includes closing the entrance to the Underground stations at times and only letting passengers exit. This is to prevent passengers being pushed onto the tracks when standing on the platform.There was no evidence of any effective plan either at Britomart or at the Auckland Ferry Terminal - to manage this situation - short of closing down the station. Ok, nobody was killed or injured and that's a measure of success, but also thousands of people's travel arrangements and fun were ruined or severely affected by such a draconian approach.
Reading on a little, in Google, as you do,
Massachussets Bay Transit Authority annnouncement:I'm sure we would like rail to be free when there's a big event in Auckland. But what I'm really interested in here is the reference to "extra MBTA police". That's right. A key complaint from those affected on Friday, in Auckland, was that there was nobody around. Nobody to protect them. Nobody on hand to deal with perfectly predictable incidents with fire-extinguishers and emergency stop buttons. No system that was useful and quick and efficient for dealing with "shit happens when there's a party" sort of situations.
NEW YEAR’S EVE – FREE SERVICE AFTER 8
COMPLETE SCHEDULE AVAILABLE BELOW.
Friday, December 31 through Saturday, January 1st
Today, the MBTA announced its service schedule for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The MBTA is providing extra transit services throughout the First Night Festivities and will be offering FREE service after 8:00 p.m. Extra MBTA Police will patrol the system to assist with crowd control and safety.
The Victoria Transport Policy Institute has researched what makes people happy/unhappy with public transport. "Crowding in accessways, stations and platforms makes walking and waiting time less pleasant.... A minute of time spent waiting under high crowding conditions is valued equal to 3.2 minutes of onboard train time whereas walking time is valued at 3.5 times higher (reflecting the additional discomfort and effort involved, but not the reduced walking speed caused by crowding). In dollar value terms, an hour of waiting under high crowding is valued at $30.33 and an hour of walking is valued at $32.65. Extreme crowding can increase costs as much as ten times.... Fruin developed six station environment crowding Levels-of-Service ratings, ranging from ‘A’ (no crowding) to ‘F’ (extreme crowding). Research summarizes the effects of density and crowding on travel time cost values. These costs begin to increase significantly when crowding exceeds LOS D, which occurs at a density of 0.7 Passengers Per Square Meter (PSM). Crowding has an even greater impact on walking, since it both increases costs per minute and reduces walking speeds. For level of service ‘F’ characterized by the breakdown of passenger flow, the crowding cost imposes a cost 10 ten times greater than level of service A...."
I know. You'll be saying we know all that. But the thing is. What are you going to do about it?
I note in the literature, reams of advice to congressional requesters, regarding the vexed topic: COMMUTER RAIL: Many Factors Influence Liability and Indemnity Provisions, and Options Exist to Facilitate Negotiations. The report I looked at was prepared for Congressmen by the US Goverment Accountability Office - whose byline is: accountability, integrity, reliability. I guess this will be the sort of thing that Mayor Len Brown, and even the Minister for the Rugby World Cup will be looking for. In the blame game.
I think the issue comes down to one of safety. It is not safe to have passengers walking along railway tracks in the dark. It is not safe to lock passengers in stopped trains and fail to explain why. It is not safe to let passengers onto platforms that are already full. And that's really just the start. Safety should be paramount in Auckland's commuter rail planning.
Auckland's rail network has a very low carrying capacity. And that will remain so for at least a decade it seems. Our system is not like Perth's which can carry 18,000 passsengers on each line/hour. Our system struggles now to carry 3,000 passengers on each line per hour on a good day. (Do the math: 6-carriage trains, 6/hour at 10 minute headway, 100 passengers/carriage at 100% loading = 3,600 passengers/hour). That's the reality. Any attempt to "tighten the timetable" - to carry more people to Eden Park for example - is an invitation to disaster. It is a risk. It puts people's lives at risk. It creates unsafe and uncomfortable environments. It is not a responsible way to run a railroad.
Auckland Council must now prioritise passenger safety, and the funding of projects that increase public safety and service reliability - especially at peak travel times because that is when the risk is greatest.
The New York State Dept of Transport has a Public Transport Safety Board which promulgates System Safety Program Plan Guidelines for Commuter Rail Transit Systems. "Historically, the PTSB's oversight program has been built around a requirement that each property develop a System Safety Program Plan (SSPP) that details the property's internal operating procedures for conducting business in a safe and efficient manner. The guidelines contained in this document provide individual properties with the guidance...." These include:
184.108.40.206 EOP for crowd control on a train and/or at a station is attached or referenced in SSPP 220.127.116.11 SSPP reflects which rail stations/terminals are monitored by CCTV for surveillance and crowd control 18.104.22.168 Emergency operating procedure for crowd control on a train and/or a station is developed by the Transportation Dept. 22.214.171.124 Railroad Police help define roles and responsibilities for responding to an incident of crowd control/disturbance. 126.96.36.199 Conductors are trained on passenger safety including
overcrowding and disruptions....
And I really only scratched the surface of the systems and situations referred to in these New York guidelines.
If Auckland wants a rail service to match its waterfront, there's work to be done. And it's not the frills. It's the fundamentals.