An editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald, 29th December, included the following comment on Sydney train services. 'Every train journey costs an average of $13.30, but fares cover only $2.70 of that, leaving taxpayers to find the remaining $10.60.'
This begs the question, how many suburban rail networks around the world, actually make money? The answer is almost none. If a city such as Sydney, approaching 5 million inhabitants, can't make a rail network come anywhere close to profitability, what chance Auckland Transport with a much lower base of commuters to draw from.
There has been plenty of study on city trains with much of it accessible on the Internet. What I haven't seen is a convincing argument from Auckland (City)Transport, in plain English of the financial pros v cons of the line extension from Downtown Auckland to Mt. Eden. A lot of PR in support of trains is being pumped out, originating largely from the same organisation or other mandarins within Auckland Council.
Overseas, two comments seem to pop up with frequency. The cost of a development is grossly understated and secondly the number of commuters projected to use the service is exaggerated. The result is a much lower level of cost effectiveness than was used in 'selling' the proposal to ratepayers and taxpayers.
In the case of the Auckland proposal the consultant brief (365 pages) bases discussion on a statement that the city centre workforce will increase by over 50% over the next 26 years. In round figures this is from 81,000 to 122,000. The basis for this selected number in the report seems unclear and may not be supported by overseas trends of employment diversification. Computerisation is having a large employee impact e.g. in banks where substantial reductions in staff levels have occurred internationally.
There have been several recent failures in consultancy or planning recommendations that have cost taxpayers substantial sums of money. The payroll system for teachers, and the police and hospital computer systems are three that come to mind. There have been other failures at both local and national levels so much so that one is sceptical of promises made by so called 'experts'. Hundreds of millions of dollars have vanished.
The operation of the suburban rail network in Wellington is being opened for tender with the current operator, Kiwi Rail, being only one of the possibilities. Details released appear to indicate no profitability. Only 50% of revenue comes from fares. This despite two well established lines servicing distinct separate population densities in the Hutt Valley and the coastal Paraparaumu region.
However it is not always possible to quantify a clear 'profit or a loss'. Income and expenditure items can be treated in different ways. A major reason for this is the capital cost of establishing the business and how this is apportioned within annual running costs - if at all. Overseas it appears a 30-35 year train amortisation period is common. What's going on here?
Some of the actual usage v projection figures from overseas are not inspiring. The mathematics to be applied is fairly basic. For example if each carriage can hold about 100 commuters and each train has 10 carriages, then 1000 can be moved per train. Allow for some getting off part way and others getting on and make it 2000. If there can be trains every 15 minutes at peak hours, this is 8 trips there and back.
16 trains requires 160 carriages and 16 locomotives, with repairs and maintenance say 180 and 21 of each. However schedules may allow some re-use of trains in the commuter period so wind the rolling stock back to the lower figure. This will give us two results:
1. The maximum number of commuters moved in one direction is 16,000 if one is optimistic. Then allow for a smaller number of workers commuting to work in the opposite direction say, 12,000, giving a total of 28,000 commuters or 56,000 trips per day both ways. Will increases of a few thousand to these numbers and shorter journeys for Westies justify expenditure of up to $4 Billion on 3.4 km of track? That is over $1 Billion per kilometre as proposed in the Auckland scenario.
2. Secondly, much of the rolling stock remains inefficiently idle outside peak hours.
The figures above vary to those used in making up the consultants report. For example trains appear to use a smaller number of carriages but have a higher frequency of 10 minutes rather than 15 minutes. This may reduce rolling stock but not passenger totals.
The next question is what impact the extension to Mount Eden will have on commuter users? A factor for all commuters is convenience. How far to walk or bus to a station? What parking is at the station? What is the fare cost per day? I suggest the tolerance level to these factors will be quite low. Other forms of transport have a less rigid base. For example, buses can easily be re-routed, suburban trains cannot.
The new super-city has been a disappointment for ratepayers. This is not only because of the shenanigans of the mayor but in terms of hard cold cash. An amalgamation of this nature should have produced savings in assets and operational expenditure. Instead rates have risen with further increases to come.
Who is in control? Certainly history will tell us that all public servants have a vested interest in themselves not us. You should note that Auckland Council a few days ago released a statement warning of a city transport network crisis. Fear tactics to get you, out in suburbanville, to toe the line? How about a friendly, more inclusive approach?
The 365 page report on the additional train connection shows a list of 'stakeholders' that excludes the day to day commuter group other than via councillors, several of whom are politically grouped. Some are mayoral toadies. The bottom line is that joe citizen will have to cop any stuff up in numbers and projections, not the 'stakeholders'.
It's worth quoting the Cato Report on suburban train operations in the United States and Canada, 'The Case Against Rail Transit' written in 2010:
'No rail transit line in the country comes close to covering its operating costs much less its total cost.'
'One reason for rail transits lack of profit is that most transit systems in The United States are publicly owned and tax subsidised and consequently have no profit motive.'
'By almost any objective criteria - profitability, ridership, cost efficiency, economic development ... Rail transit systems make no sense.'
'Transportation systems work when they go where people want them to go, not where planners would like people to go.'
'The fundamental problem with rail transit is that it makes no sense in today's decentralised world.'
In summary, there is justification in saying that heavy rail systems,in the suburban travel environment are obsolete methods of transport and should be regarded as such. Very few - exceptions being very high density such as Tokyo - make any profit or cover capital expenditure.
Meanwhile over on the Gold Coast of Australia, a 10 kilometre light rail service has been opened from the University Hospital running across Surfers and ending at Broadbeach South near the casino and the Pacific Fair Shopping Centre. Each service seats 308 and it's frequent, quick and looks smart. Try it on your next visit. Extensions are in the planning process. The Port to the rugby test in one of these? Ripper!
The proposal for Auckland, put forward by the mayor and his planners, will probably come in at around $4 Billion. Internationally it's a very rich per kilometre number. If they've got any numbers wrong it will continue the trend of dumping any failure to perform, on, you the rate and tax payers. Those who failed will become invisible.
If the operating loss figures are anything like Sydney, as outlined in the Sydney Morning Herald, Auckland has a problem. However, I'm sure the consultants could eat me for breakfast. 365 pages at a few million bucks v back of the envelope? Spud.