Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Connex chief addresses Waitakere City Council

There is no quick fix to relieving the growing frustrations of Western Line train users because of the need for upgrades and improvements to Auckland’s rundown rail service. That’s the grim but realistic message Connex general manager Chris White gave to a meeting of the Waitakere City Council tonight. And he warned there may be even more short term pain while timetables are adjusted to be more realistic and further delays are caused by the next stage of double tracking.

Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey ,who had had invited him to answer consumer angst, told the meeting that his city believed in rail especially with the growing petrol price but he could understand people getting “thoroughly cheesed off” turning up at the train platform and the train not arriving or being late.

Councillors, who echoed those sentiments, called the trains “Thomas the half-tank engine” and “not even a Lego train” while Mr Harvey brought laughter when he wondered aloud if the trains had been bought on auction site Trade Me.

Mr White gave consumers these answers to the two key issues troubling them:
1. Why are system faults causing the trains to run late?
“Auckland’s rail network has suffered from under investment for many years. The infrastructure (signals, track, rolling stock) is old and needs upgrading and replacement. This is being addressed in the short term through
- ongoing track duplication
- procurement of an interim train fleet
- improved maintenance
In the long term procurement of a new train fleet and a core infrastructure are needed.”

2. Who do trains run late when there are no system faults?
“ In some ways, we are the victim of our own success because of the various reasons:
- the growth of passenger numbers
- the changing balance of vehicles in the fleet
- speed restrictions
- timetable running times
- significant increases in services while the network remains unchanged.
“There are more trains on the way: eight SAs around September and 14 by mid-year. These will be more reliable. Late running is amplified by the single track sections between Avondale and Henderson, Henderson and Waitakere and also because of the configuration of Newmarket that causes issues.”

In developing an overall long-term solution, Mr White said Connex and the ARTA were developing plans, the implementation of which depended on their more additional SA trains and more train drivers.

Timetable to be changed
In the short term there would be a revised timetable to reflect an achievable journey time. The changes would see peak trains providing trains every 35 minutes from Waitakere plus an express service and peak trains every 15 minutes from New Lynn. Because of the problems of multiple peak direction services passing on the single track section of the Western Line, some morning peak hour services would be held stopped at Henderson station for around eight minutes. Eight services from Waitakere would arrive at Britomart between 7am and 9am including one express.
“The revised timetable will help ontime performance with carrying capacity from the West increased but speed restrictions from further future track duplication will have an impact.
“The solution remains dependent on the ongoing acquisition of more fleet and drivers. Changes to the timetable will not remove delays caused by system failures.”

Mayor’s reaction

Mayor Harvey told Mr White that while it was not all good news, it was important to know the situation and for the council to have a dialogue with the train operator. Asked about a comment that trains seem to run better in India, Mr White said this was because “in India, they have a realistic view of the implication of the equipment and can match timetables with that.”
Lack of information questioned
Councillor Penny Hulse, who said her son regularly tried to catch the train so gave her a running account of the problems, asked why there was no simple explanation given to train users when things went wrong. “Surely this is a simple customer service approach?”
Mr White: “We provide text messages and that touches people. There is a project to put displays on stations for those without mobile phones and this involves fibre optics. My staff are also have mobile phones so can pass on the situation.
“But the trains are controlled from Wellington and until two weeks ago, we had no idea where the trains were. We now get a download of that information from Wellington so we can interpret where the trains are. Otherwise we would not know other than by talking to the train driver by radio.”
We’re paying the price for a rundown service
Another councillor said it was a fact that people were still trying to use the train system even though it was “rattly, loud and late” so this proved a train system for Auckland was wanted. One councillor urged pressure to be put on the ARTA and Government funding agencies to put capital investment in the rail system which she described as a classic example of a market experiment going wrong. She called it an was a 1950s train system now being put back together and “not even a Lego train system at the moment.”
The Mayor thanked Mr White for attending, adding that it was not meant to be a witch-hunt but an information briefing. His city believed in rail and always had, “and that’s why we’re hanging in there.”
Good on you Bob!
Well done to Mayor Harvey and the council for giving us the opportunity to hear first hand of the situation and one can sympathise with Connex for the enormous problems they face. As one councillor pointed out, they are the operator and there are bigger players who need to be investing in the infrastructure and building a Perth-type service.


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