Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

SocietyDecember 13, 2022

Auckland rail closures will waste more than a million hours of commuters’ time in 2023

Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

Just how terrible will public transport in our biggest city be next year? Emma Vitz has the data.

Efficient transport at scale is something we’re never been great at in New Zealand. But rather than getting better, our biggest city seems to be getting worse.

Before the pandemic, Auckland’s train system had up to two million passengers per month. In 2022, this has been below one million per month, on average.

But rather than gearing up for a revival of the public transport system now that we are no longer going into lockdowns, Auckland’s trains are headed for a lockdown of their own.

KiwiRail will close large parts of the Auckland rail network between 2023 and 2025. That’s right – for years, the largest public transport system in the country will be limping along at reduced capacity. Millions of trips will be disrupted.

Auckland’s train network is made up of four main lines. In the 12 months up to September 2022, over a third of all trips were taken on the Western line. The Eastern line and Southern line made up 28% and 31% of all trips, respectively. A relatively paltry 5% of train travellers used the Onehunga line.

The Auckland train network. (Image: AT)

After the annual Christmas closure that stretches into mid-January, the Onehunga line will remain closed until late March. Trains will also not run on the Southern line between Ōtāhuhu and Britomart, although Southern line trains will continue to run to and from Britomart using the Eastern line.

From late March to December 2023, the Eastern line will close between Ōtāhuhu and Britomart. That’s 10 months of a major transportation channel being shut down in our biggest city, with more shutdowns to come in 2024 and 2025.

Anyone who has seen the dreaded “Buses replace trains” sign knows that they’re in for a much longer commute. The appeal of trains is that they don’t compete with traffic. It takes 18 minutes to take the train from Sylvia Park to Britomart, regardless of whether it’s peak travelling time or not. Take a bus, and you’re likely to be spending much longer slogging your way through traffic during rush hour.

So how much time will all of this waste?

It’s a fairly simple calculation: how many people would take the train during the time period of the closures, and how much longer would an equivalent bus journey take them? What I’ve done is a rough estimate, but it’s nonetheless illustrative of a city that is about to cut its transportation system off at the knees.

I’ve assumed that in 2023, overall use of the trains would be at two-thirds of pre-pandemic (2019) levels, and that the split between the different train lines is the same as it was in the year up to September 2022. I’ve applied the monthly and weekly seasonal trends we see in train use, with fewer passengers using the trains over the summer, during school holidays, and during weekends.

I’ve also assumed that someone using the Eastern or Southern line who is affected by train closures (i.e. someone who would start from or pass through one of the stations that is closed) would spend, on average, an additional 20 minutes per trip. On the Western line, this is estimated at 25 minutes, while on the Onehunga line it’s estimated to be 15 minutes (due to differences in how long each line is, and how much of it will be closed). This is roughly based on equivalent bus trips across different times of the day.

Anecdotally, Auckland’s bus system appears to already be under stress, with many commuters reporting a higher number of cancellations than usual. This is likely due to labour shortages and drivers being off work because of COVID. Extra demand on the system due to trains being cancelled is likely to exacerbate this, and I might be underestimating how much longer a trip will take.

Putting all of this together, we can estimate how much time will be wasted in 2023 due to rail closures.

Over the course of the year, these rail closures will waste over a million hours of Aucklanders’ time. Just under 650,000 hours wasted are due to the closure of the Eastern line, which services almost a third of all passengers and will be closed for most of the year. The Southern line is also significantly affected, with over 200,000 hours wasted. The Onehunga line services fewer passengers, and contributes about 40,000 hours of wasted time.

Perhaps the most concerning part of all of this is a possible death spiral of public transport in Auckland. If people can’t use trains due to line closures for several years, their transportation habits will change. Instead of using a patchwork system of buses, those who can will turn to private cars. By the time the rail network rebuild finishes in three years’ time, the demand for trains may be significantly lower than before. At that point, it’s difficult to justify any further investment. This spiral continues, as fewer people use a system that isn’t being developed to meet the needs of the city.

Auckland was named the world’s most liveable city in 2021. Since then, Covid cases have gone up, and our ranking has come down. But rather than arguing about how liveable Auckland is, I’m wondering whether it’s a city at all. Without a decent public transport system that can move people to where they need to go, we’re little more than a series of poorly strung together suburbs.

Keep going!