Monday, 28 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: BRISBANE

Knowing that Brisbane and the Queensland government are obsessed by buses and the construction of busways it is actually surprising that it also boasts quite a decent suburban rail network. But a first stroll through the city centre reveals its “real face” - this is bus capital! You can't see them at first, only very few streets in the CBD actually have bus stops, until you come across a large square at the end of Queen Street, with a big hole which acts as a 3-lane ramp on which hundreds of buses enter or leave the underground bus labyrinth built beneath a huge shopping mall (the bus boarding platforms are integrated into a large food court). To provide more capacity, another underground bus station opened nearby beneath King George Square, in front of the Town Hall. This appears more to be a huge modern metro station. These two centrally located underground stations are just the centrepiece of a growing network of busways, but busways of the super-highway type, i.e. long sections of complete grade-separation, including tunnels and viaducts and full-scale stations. While busways may certainly have several advantages, I personally believe that the policy is going in the wrong direction.

The biggest advantage is without doubt the one-seat ride from the CBD to your home, at a speed which is probably higher than any other possible transport, at least as soon as the bus is on the dedicated busway. But to achieve this exclusive, almost taxi-like service, you need to provide an extremely large amount of different bus routes to reach every corner of the urban and suburban sprawl, which results in a network layout which is impossible to illustrate (at the Transit Information Centre they admitted that they cannot print a bus map because there are so many lines – anyway, they don't even print a map for the central area or for individual suburbs either....). As the enormous flux from the suburbs into the CBD and back home again occurs only during peak hours, I observed MANY buses leaving the central area almost empty during daytime hours. Of course, you cannot have 500 bus routes running every 10 minutes during the day, but if the frequency is not good enough, no occasional rider bothers to wait for that bus. So while regular CBD commuters will know which bus they take and from where, the “system” is useless for occasional riders (not to talk about visitors not familiar with many place names). Even on the busways it is actually not really clear where all these buses go to, as there are so many different lines passing through that even the experienced traveller loses control, inbound it is always easier as most go to the CBD. I don't know about costs, but I cannot really believe that paying the salary of all the necessary bus drivers is not a strong argument against this sort of transportation. In general, the bus fleet appeared more modern than for example in Auckland, and some buses were even powered by natural gas. Still exhaust fumes extraction from the tunnels must also be an important cost factor.

So while I admit that riding a bus on one of those bus-highways is a rapid form of transport, I think it does not help to create a proper system, as a “system” needs to be simple and understandable for everyone.

But as I said in the introduction, Brisbane also has quite a nice suburban rail system which works pretty well, with most routes being served every 30 minutes (also on weekends!), with some sections carrying two lines. Many sections in the central area have three or four tracks, so for the time being there is no real bottleneck, especially as regional rail traffic that shares some sections is not too important. The Airport to Gold Coast Line is somewhat different from the other typical suburban rail lines: the partly single-track airport access was built with private capital and therefore has a special fare, from Eagle Junction south the trains can be used with normal tickets (see below). South of Park Road station, the Gold Coast trains run express to Beenleigh (some stop at a few intermediate stations, too), from where the line has a more regional than suburban character anyway. The Queensland Rail suburban system used to be branded CityTrain (and this is still shown on some trains), but for some unknown reason this name is no longer used.

The fleet includes three different generations, the oldest still being the most strongly represented, but having been refurbished, they offer almost the same comfort as the newest series, all with air-conditioning and acoustic station announcements, the new ones also with visual announcements. Operation and dispatching appears a bit more old-fashioned than in Melbourne, there is a second man (I think I have only seen male drivers and conductors...) always in the cabin of the second trainset (most trains are operated as two 3-car sets), and there is an “invitation” saying “Doors closing, stand clear!” They also announce the next station and which side the platform is on. The floor height only matches the platform height in a few stations, sometimes when there is a slight curve, it can get quite high! The conductor has a manual ramp for wheelchair access.

The stations are generally in a good shape, some have a 1930s appearance, while others have been rebuilt completely, and now feature lifts and footbridges. As in Melbourne, all stations have generally usable toilets. Many stations still have older Queensland Rail signs, strongly faded and sometimes impossible to read the name. Others have been replaced with a new design, not too appealing in my opinion, but the newest ones have a strong orange stamp, for TransLink, the Transportation Authority of Southeast Queensland. So, large orange signs now at least hint car drivers at existing stations, but unlike in Melbourne, the colour does not reveal the mode, thus a busway station looks the same as a rail station. A feature worth copying in other places is the automatic acoustic pre-annoucement of the next train 2 minutes before its arrival, like “The next train on platform 2 is a City and Ferny Grove service and will arrive in approx. 2 minutes” or similar.

One thing I hated in the beginning, and finally accepted it although I'm still not convinced of is the new fare system. Paper tickets are still sold for single rides, only. Anybody else needs to acquire a “go card”, a smartcard that can be used in the entire Translink area which is rather large, probably some 150-200 km in the north-south direction. This area is divided into 23 zones in each direction from Brisbane CBD and the corresponding fare is deducted from the go card, and therefore one has to touch on and touch off at all times. The first problem is that one never really knows how much it costs, I tried to understand, but couldn't. At least, it was generally less than I expected. I couldn't find out either how long the system accepts a touch-on as a continuation of the previous trip, and in many cases the system doesn't seem to understand where you are going... One reason for this is that the rail stations outside the central area are open-access stations, so you need to touch on and off as you walk onto the platform through one of several possible entrances (luckily, unlike Melbourne, there are several entrances!), there are even touch-on machines in the middle of the platform. So, in my case (I admit it is not the most typical), I touched off at the final stop, and a few moments later I touched on again to go back into the city and the system would accept my return journey as a continuation of the previous journey, so often, when I touched out in the city centre I wasn't charged for the return trip! Anyway, you get other discounts, like off-peak, and if you use it a lot in one week, it gets half price, etc. That's what I mean, that you never really know how much you will pay.

Implementing such a system costs millions of dollars, so why not implement it properly? Why maintain single paper tickets, which require all accesses in the central areas which have proper ticket barriers to be manned at all times to open the gates for paper ticket holders, also the Airport Train issues paper tickets! Due to the lack of proper ticket gates in outer stations, ticket inspections are still necessary on the trains, and I had them on the first train I took! So the problem of fare evasion persists.

When I went to Gold Coast, I got off at Nerang and was picked up by a local fan, the typical situation when you forget to touch out! And I forgot. I wasn't sure how I could solve this situation, but when the guy dropped me at Varsity Lakes (the southernmost station of the system), the ticket office lady told me, I should simply touch out first at the machine inside the station (this one has proper gates, though open....), and then touch on again to return to Brisbane. This means that I “finished” my journey three hours after getting off the train and it still accepted it as valid. Anyway, as I wrote for Melbourne, I prefer simple tickets which for a set price say where you can go, and with the option of unlimited rides. The Brisbane system doesn't help to get more people out of their cars – the whole philosophy behind “day/weekly/monthly passes” is that you are more likely to use public transport if you already have a ticket (at a fair price!), and the feeling that you made the most of it. Having to pay a new fare for each trip makes you always think twice whether you should actually do it.

QR (Queensland Rail)


Queensland Rail at Wikipedia

Brisbane at UrbanRail.Net

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: MELBOURNE Trams

When I left my accomodation near South Yarra station for the first time last week to explore the city's urban rail system, I thought, the area looks very much like London, but with a Viennese tram system, and indeed there are several similarities, most of all the density of the network, with trams through every second street, a quite frequent service, a mixture of old and new vehicles, etc.

Melbourne boasts the largest tram system in the world (I'm not a big fan of superlatives), but for most European tram enthusiasts it is quite surprising that such a large system has survived in such a remote place. According to the Metlink brochure, its route length is 249 km, which may be correct, but I'll have to check that later. This compares to some 180 km in Vienna and Berlin, and generally it is still said that Saint Petersburg is still up in that category, but noone has provided a plausible current length.

The Melbourne tram system, certainly a paradise for any tram fan, has everything a tram system can have. Vintage tram vehicles not only operate on the FREE city circle line introduced primarily for tourists but also popular with locals as it is free (though slow and often packed! - labelled line 35), but they also run regularly on line 78/79 through the busy Chapel Street in South Yarra and Prahran, and line 30 (which is a reinforcement service along LaTrobe Street). Besides these, there are four different types of vehicles, two older high-floor trams and two standard low-floor trams well familiar to Europeans, the Siemens Combino and the Alstom Citadis (with some newer ones first leased from Mulhouse but now permanently staying down under). The Combino trams surprised me for the small amount of seats they offer, I'll have to check at home whether the European versions have the same seating arrangement. The other weak point is that they are rather loud, probably partly due to the loose wheels they have in the middle, but they are always loud rattling along the streets, both when you're inside and outside. The Citadis seem to be slightly more quiet and offer much better seating, so in this case I would opt for the French solution. But anyway, I was told that Bombardier trams have been ordered as the next generation.

See Wikipedia for more details:

As far as alignment is concerned, the network also includes everything one might think of, from street-running in mixed traffic with cars, to marked-off lanes, to reserved right of way, to railway alignments taken over from former suburban railway lines (line 96 to St Kilda, and 109 to Port Melbourne). Sometimes boarding is from street level (car drivers generally stop, and sometimes I observed tram drivers telling them off if they didn't or even writing down their number). When the doors open, a sign like that at pedestrian crossings folds out and trams have flashing lights on. Generally my impression was that traffic among cars runs smoothly and that it is not too dangerous, as obviously everybody driving around here has grown up with trams, so it's not a strange element for them in road traffic. Sometimes there is a narrow boarding area in the middle of the street protected by a fence, but it's very narrow, so one doesn't really feel comfortable waiting in that space. In recent years many stops have been completely rebuilt and are now proper “platform stops” and also shown as such on line panels. These mostly have electronic next-tram indicators. Generally, all stops have a proper stop sign (in green, of course, like everything related to the trams), and mostly there is also a timetable displayed, but sometimes I found it missing. As is normal with street-running systems, the punctuality is somewhat at random, sometimes I was surprised how much on time a tram arrived, and sometimes you wait for a while and then you get two or even three vehicles arriving at the same time.

The termini are mostly very basic, and generally one single-track in the middle of the road. This may be quite a problem during peak service, when the stop is still occupied by the previous tram, or the stop has to serve even two different lines. At some termini, there is a set-down point still in the double-track section, so at least passengers can get off instead of waiting to enter the terminus proper. I was surprised that several stub termini located perpendicularly to another passing tram line do not have a track connection to that line, which is common in other places to facilitate diversions in case of disruptions.

Swanston Street in the downtown area is probably the busiest tram route in the world (maybe Karlsruhe's Kaiserstraße is similarly packed and therefore now gets a tunnel underneath), with a total of 9! lines running through there – and 7 of these terminate at Melbourne University, which has quite a peculiar layout to cope with so many reversing trams (all bidirectional and single units): there are three reversing sidings between the running tracks, located one behind the other; if I have observed it correctly, an arriving tram goes into the next available siding, but obviously cannot remain there long either. Despite this heavy traffic on Swanston Street, the system works fine, but generally there are far too many stops, basically on every street corner, and sometimes in between, too. Being so many, the maps don't show all the stops, not even the line panels do. So for better orientation, the stops are numbered. But the stop signs also show the name of the stop (basically the crossing street). The numbering system is not completely useful, although it helps, of course, but with the construction of platform stops, the total number has been reduced on some sections, but the numbers remain. Also, the number of the stop can only refer to one line, and when there are two or more lines running along the same stretch, the numbers on one line may get out of order. Usually the numbers run from the city centre to the suburbs. The stops on the lines that were extended into the Docklands area had to be given negative numbers, well, in reality its D1, D2, etc.

The trams share the fare system of the Metro and bus system, but recently it was decided that all tram routes can be used with a zone 1 ticket to simplify things. On outer stretches (part of the overlapping zones) the cheaper zone 2 ticket can also be used. Officially, and I was told so today by a ticket inspector, everybody has to validate their Metcard each time they board, but nobody does it as it doesn't really make sense, but those using a Myki smartcard have to touch on and off, which takes quite a bit more time, so it seems almost unimaginable that the new system will one day work as the only ticket, as it would delay boarding and alighting enormously. And they will still need ticket inspectors (and inspecting Myki tickets also takes much longer as they have to introduce it into their control device!). I heard from some people that the extremely costly introduction of the smartcard system was more of a political decision than an economic one, especially as the distribution of the revenue seems to be working fine as it is now.

Yarra Trams


UrbanRail.Net > Melbourne Trams

Monday, 21 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: MELBOURNE Trains

Melbourne appeared to me as a great city from the beginning, and even a week later I think it is quite a good place to live, not only because of its extensive and mostly well-functioning urban rail system. This consists of two types, the world's largest tram system, which I will deal with in a separate post, and the also rather large suburban rail system, now branded the „Metro“.

But before getting on the train, one has to buy a ticket, of course, and for me, Melbourne has one of the best fare systems I have seen. The greater Melbourne metropolitan area (and this also includes regions outside the built-up area like Stony Point, which is served by a diesel train) is divided into only two fare zones, which overlap, so that passengers travelling a short distance from one zone to the other don't have to buy a 2-zone ticket. A weekly ticket for the two zones is available at 49.60 AUD (more or less the same in USD, and some 37 EUR), so for a little bit more than 5 EUR a day I was able to explore the entire network. And Melbourne only has one fare system, i.e. all tickets are valid on trains, trams and buses, even „single“ tickets are in fact 2-hour unlimited passes, these are rather expensive though, with 3.70 for the inner zone. A short trip in the city centre with a City Saver costs 2.80. At 109.60 AUD, a monthly ticket for zone 1 only is also quite beyond a typical monthly pass in any European city. But the system is very successful as trams and trains are busy at all times, not just during peak hours, even on Sundays. At present, tickets are sold in two different ways, the more traditional “Metcard”, a magnetic strip card, and the new “Myki” smartcard which requires touch-on and touch-off. Only metro stations in the centre and some others have full ticket barriers, at most suburban stations you just walk in, but there are occasional ticket inspections on the train!

While the general appearance of the stations is quite good, all clean and tidy, and most with usable toilets, I was often annoyed by the bad accessibility. Probably thought to create a properly separated paid area, most platforms are enclosed by fences, so one often has to walk a long way to the actual entrance when an opening at the other end of the platform would be easy to make and save passengers a lot of time. Therefore I didn't understand either why they don't put proper ticket gates, if the access is channelled through a small slot anyway. At many stations with side platforms, the two platforms are not really connected, but one has to walk to a nearby level crossing to get to the other side (well, I have to admit, that being used to right-hand operation, I sometimes mistook the platform until I realised....).

There are basically three different types of trains, although some of the older Hitachi trains are still in service during peak, but I only spotted a few and never got a chance to actually ride them. The second-oldest are probably the largest number, those are the refurbished Comeng trains. They are quite pleasant, except for their peculiar door handles. Unlike on the newer trains, which have a normal button to open the doors, these have a knob, and you have to manually slide the doors open, which can be quite hard, especially if you carry things in your hands.

The other two are of the same age but due to the divided system when it was first transferred to private operation, each of the two operators purchased their own trains. Visually, I prefer the Alstom train, which like the Comeng has a wider waist, or a belly, whereas the Siemens cars have completely straight sides, a bit boring. When it comes to riding the train, I might prefer the Siemens, which seemed to offer a smoother ride, but this may also be due to the track, as on some sections I even noticed with my own eyes when waiting for a train, that the track is not in the best condition. When standing on a bridge, you can also observe that the cars move a lot from side to side. On all three types, you can walk from carriage to carriage within a three-car set, on the Comeng by walking outside like on the NYC Subway, on the Alstom trains, there are glass doors between carriages, and the Siemens trains are of the proper walk-through type. All trains are usually made of two 3-car sets, thus reaching a length of some 150 m. But there was one thing that stroke me most about the Siemens trains: they are extremely dirty inside! The other trains also have some window scratching (made me feel like home in Berlin...), but the Siemens trains have dirty and sometimes even destroyed seats, while on the other two types I did not observe anything like that. This may have two reasons – the areas where these trains are used (the southern and the western lines) have a different type of passenger (they say the western districts are more problematic), or, the seats call for aggression, because the fabric used, its colour and pattern, is so horrible that one feels the need to destroy it, very weird. It is probably hard to show that on a photo, because it is too subtle – anyway, on some of the Siemens trains I have already seen an upholstering similar to the other trains and it is much more pleasant. Theoretically all trains have a visual station announcements which works fine, but the accoustic is rather at random, i.e. some trains have it, others don't. The Siemens trains have only two doors on each side, whereas the others have three.

The Siemens trains have only 2+2 seating, whereas the others have mostly 2+3, but this seems to be changing for 2+2. With 2+3 the remaining corridor is too narrow, so noone wants to stand in there, but the capacity is needed during peak hours, so the 2+2 seats provide more room for standees, while 2+2 is enough seating during off-peak anyway.

While the trains run fairly punctual during off-peak hours, delays seem to be quite the norm during peak hours. Inbound trains normally show “Flinders Street” as their destination, sometimes with the add-on “via City Loop”, but I was not always sure whether the train would go around the loop or not. Flinders Street is the big problem of the system. Although it has some nine through tracks (plus some stubs or divided platform sections, it is still a bottleneck. In the 1970s, when the loop was built, the planners were extremely far-sighted to build a separate track for each of the four line groups, so these don't interfere with each other, and in fact, trains coming for example from the south or east in the morning enter the loop directly towards Parliament, and it feels like a proper metro until Southern Cross, but between Southern Cross and Flinders Street all trains I have been on crawl, although there are six tracks between these two main stations. But these are shared by several regional trains, as well as some peak trains which run west directly from Flinders Street. On other occasions I took a Frankston train at Southern Cross, which was then stopping at Flinders Street for 10 minutes. Also, while the panels in the station showed Frankston, inside the train the destination remains Flinders Street until the train leaves from there, so passengers boarding a train on the loop cannot really check inside the train whether it continues or terminates at Flinders Street (which many trains do after peak service, which adds to the congestion, as these trains are taken out of service and brought to the depot). An accoustic announcement following “Now arriving at Flinders Street” like “This train continues to Frankston” would be helpful.

Generally all trains run around the loop, except for the Sandringham line, which shuttles from and to Flinders Street. The Alamein and Williamstown lines only reach the downtown area during peak hours, at other times shuttles operate from Camberwell and Newport, respectively, with only 3-car trains. The frequency varies according to the line, the Frankston line being the busiest with trains every 10 minutes during off-peak daytime hours, while outer areas are served every 30 minutes (only the Hurstbridge line beyond Eltham, which runs through open countryside, is served every 40 minutes. On the Werribee line, express trains run every 20 minutes directly from Flinders Street and bypassing the single-track Altona loop. Also on other lines, certain trains skip certain stations, so one always has to check the timetable. It would be interesting to see a map that actually depicts service patterns.

Printed timetables are readily available at stations and information points. These also include a network map (which is not distributed just as a map), but the map has some flaws, and I would prefer a Sydney-type map with colour-coded lines. While it is difficult to depict the direction the trains take around the loop (this changes at lunchtime for most trains), the area around North Melbourne station is quite misleading. It appears that trains from Upfield continue west to Footscray! Otherwise, Melbourne, and Victoria as a whole, has one of the best signage systems I have ever seen. All stations are marked clearly by large blue signs, and transfer options are signposted perfectly, even the meters that separate the station from a tram stop are indicated. All tram-related signs are green, and for buses orange. V/Line, the regional train network, has been assigned purple. Generally all signs are in very good condition.

I know that Anglo-Saxon countries don't like it, but I think it would be easier to introduce line numbers. In this case, I would suggest something like E1, E2, E3, E4 for the four eastern branches, internally the Burnley lines, the S1-S4 for the Caulfield lines (includes Sandringham), W1-W5 for what are now part of the Northern Lines (Williamstown, Werribee, Watergardens), and finally N1-N4 for the two lines of the Northern Lines that actually go north (Craigieburn and Upfield) and the two Clifton Hills lines.

The Sydenham Line is the only one which is not named directly after its terminus station, which in this case is called Watergardens (apparently a case of purchased naming rights of an adjacent shopping mall), but electrification is underway further out and this line will then become the Sunbury Line (the regional trains on this section can now also be used with a metropolitan ticket). A completely new extension is under construction from Epping to South Morang, so this line will change its name too. Two infill stations are under construction in the outer areas of the Pakenham and Cranbourne lines. The section of the Ballarat railway line, which branches off at Sunshine, is planned to be electrified up to Melton, so this would add a new branch to the Metro system. Already launched is the construction of dedicated regional rail tracks between Sunshine and Southern Cross, as these services are getting more and more busy, too. A new link will also bring trains from Geelong onto these new tracks. The Craigieburn and the Pakenham lines are also shared by some regional DMU services.

All in all, riding the Melbourne Metro trains through the inner suburbs, where stations are very closely spaced, reminded me a bit of the London District or Metropolitan Lines, although with modern trains, or even the Green Line on the Stockholm Tunnelbana. But none of these has level crossings, which in Melbourne are a standard feature. These work fairly well, but make the system appear more like a light rail with heavy and long trains. But generally trains move at a decent speed, and above all, they get moving quickly, no time-consuming dispatching like we have on the Berlin S-Bahn, instead doors open, people get in and out, and the driver closes them quickly (there is a soft warning sound...) and off we go, not even a “stand clear the doors”. During peak hours the underground platforms are generally staffed and those people do some dispatching if necessary. The trains also have a good air-conditioning system, not too cold either, and at termini, where trains stay longer, doors close automatically after a while to keep already boarded passengers cool. All stations have modern next-train indicators and you can press a green button and then hear the next arrivals.

The design of the three underground stations is quite European, in fact they could be S-Bahn stations in German cities like Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Munich or even Hamburg, which were built at the same time. There is another covered station at Box Hill (with a shopping mall on top), but this is very basic and not really appealing. Many of the surface stations preserve a nice old station building.

To conclude, an overall very modern system (in fact, much more up-to-date than I expected) which suffers some problems due to the Flinders Street bottleneck and maybe some other infrastructure issues. But the bottleneck is just another sign that this rail system is extremely successful and I could not imagine this city without it. By the way, car drivers have to pay toll to use the motorways in the inner area > so Melbourne is on good track!

UrbanRail.Net > Melbourne

Metro Trains Melbourne

Metlink (Overall Transport Authority)

Melbourne Trains at Wikipedia

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: WELLINGTON

When it comes to suburban rail, New Zealand's capital city Wellington is certainly number one in the country, with four electrified lines running to the northern and northeastern suburbs from a terminal station located at the northern fringe of the city centre. Trains are not modern, but good enough to provide a decent service, mostly every 30 minutes on each line, with some additional trains, some of which run express, during peak hours. Similar to Auckland, the trains are staffed with several conductors checking tickets as passengers get on. On the busier two lines, the Hutt Valley Line (HVL) and the Paraparaumu Line (PPL), trains can be made up of six carriages, whereas the other two lines, the Johnsonville Line (JVL) and the Melling Line (MEL - actually a short branch of the HVL) mostly 2-car trains are used, although on the JVL also 4-car trains can be seen. The MEL does not operate on weekends, whereas the other lines also maintain a 30-minute headway on Saturdays and Sundays. The system is operated with the proud name of “TranzMetro”.

The JVL, which is actually the original route of the North Island Trunk Line towards Auckland, is a steep single track line with various tunnels and passing loops. It is basically separated from the other lines from Wellington Station, although the tracks it normally uses are linked to the other tracks there. This line has recently been upgraded in preparation for the new Matangi trains about to enter service; unfortunately I only spotted one of them on a test run. Meanwhile, this line is operated with EMUs from the 1950s. It is a quite picturesque line as it winds its way up the mountain and provides some nice views of the bay.

The PPL will be extended further north on 20 February 2011 from Paraparaumu to Waikanae and will change its name to the Kapiti Line (named after the region it serves), although the new timetable still has the “PPL” abbreviation. For the extension of the suburban service the line was doubled and electrified, and a new, though simple station built at Waikanae. The PPL is mostly double-track, although there is a single-track section with five tunnels along the coast between Muri and Paekakariki. There are two longer tunnels after the PPL diverges from the HVL, which were built in the 1930s to create a more direct and less steep route for the mainline to Auckland. The PPL route is also served by one daily passenger train to and from Auckland, “the Overlander” (12 hours!), as well as the “Capital Connection” a daily commuter train to/from Palmerston North.

The HVL serves the Hutt Valley, a fast growing region on the other side of the Wellington Bay. Due to its location, the City of Wellington can actually not expand any further, as the flat downtown area is surrounding by hills, which are already built-up where possible or provide a protected green belt for the city, so the only space for urban expansion is further north into the Kapiti Region or northeast into the Hutt Valley. The HVL therefore provides an essential service to the latter area, with the line running directly along the bay (and a motorway) as it leaves Wellington, so this section also provides a nice view. Five trains hauled by diesel locos run from Wellington via Upper Hutt to Masterton in the Wairarapa region, but these cannot be considered part of the suburban rail system (they also have a different fare).

So all in all, the TranzMetro provides a good service, but for many commuters the railway station in Wellington is located too far from where they want to go, so they have to change to the urban buses to reach their final destinations. Several proposal have been presented in the past to extend the rail system further south, and activist group “Trans-Action”, whose members gave me a warm welcome to their city, works hard to introduce a kind of tram-train system for Wellington, with trains continuing through the city centre along the so-called “Golden Mile” to eventually reach the airport located almost at the southern tip of the peninsula. Considering that the JVL has just been upgraded for the new heavy-rail, high-floor rolling stock, some obstacles will have to be overcome to fight this idea through.

Wellington is not only NZ's leader in suburban rail, but has also the most environment-friendly bus system, as it boasts quite a large trolleybus network, apparently the only trolleybus system worldwide that operates on the left side. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to explore it properly – simply because the trolleybuses remain in the depot on weekends for some strange reasons. While some lines are then operated with diesel buses, others don't operate at all. Still, the city's main transit corridor is used by numerous diesel buses also during the week, which often form clusters which reduces their travel speed through downtown.

Last but not least, the Wellington Cable Car deserves a mention, too, as this is authentic urban rail. It is also a major tourist attraction as visitors can enjoy a great view from the top and start their downhill walk through the Botanical Gardens, but it is also used by many locals to climb up the steep mountain from Lambton Quay, the city's major shopping street. It is called a “cable car” as it was indeed operated in the early days like the San Francisco cable trams, but it was rebuilt into a normal Swiss-type funicular in the 1970s.

Wellington still has some homework to do to create an integrated ticket system, the first steps having been made with the Snapper smartcard which can be used at least on all buses operated by different operators. I had an Explorer Pass which cost me 20 NZD (some 12 €) for one day and covered trains and buses, a Rover Ticket is available at 13 NZD to be used only on the train network.

See also Wellington at UrbanRail.Net

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: CHRISTCHURCH

Of the three largest cities in New Zealand, Christchurch is without doubt the one with the least developed public transport system, which is completely "bus-based". There is no suburban rail system like in Auckland or Wellington, although actually four rail lines radiate out of Christchurch. At present the somehow remote railway station is only served by two passenger trains a day, the Tranz Alpine across the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the West Coast, and the Tranz Coastal, which runs along the East Coast to Picton, where it connects to the ferry to Wellington. Both are very scenic routes and well patronised by tourists from all parts of the world. The last suburban trains ran in 1972, but in recent years there have been several proposals to re-introduce a kind of commuter rail service.

More details about the railway history in and around Christchurch can be found here:

Christchurch, however, has a heritage tram line, which runs in a circle around downtown on a new route opened in 1995. At present this service is being extended to the southern parts of the city centre and the Polytech campus. As of now, it is only a tourist attraction, with no single tickets available for spontanous short trips; a 2-day ticket, which allows unlimited hop-on hop-off costs 17 NZD (some 9 €). Locals can, however, buy an annual pass to use the tram. In any case, walking is in most cases faster than taking one of the three trams which run daily every 8 minutes. With the new extension and further proposals, the basis is being laid for what may one day become a modern light rail system.

Numerous enthusiasts of the Tramway Historical Society, who gave me a warm welcome in their city and showed me all the precious pieces they are currently restoring, are fighting strongly to expand the system and also introduce a modern light rail system for Christchurch. Their activities can be seen at the Tramway Museum, which is part of the Ferrymead Heritage Park, and at weekends several vintage trams operate there on a dedicated line. More at:

More on the former and current tram system:

Friday, 4 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: AUCKLAND

Considering the size of New Zealand's largest city with over one million inhabitants, the suburban rail system is rather insufficient. For many decades, Auckland has been known for its underdeveloped public transport system, while the private motor car seemed to be the preferred mode of transport for individuals, but also politicians. But there is good news, Auckland is finally catching up, although it may take another decade at least until a rail system comparable to that of Perth or Brisbane, both similar in size and urban structure, will be available.

At present, the modest rail system consists of four non-electrified lines running south and west from the city centre. They all start in the 5-track underground Britomart station, which features quite a pleasant design, but despite its high ceiling and the certainly existing exhaust fumes extraction, the air is not at all pleasant. All in all, the layout is similar to the Estació Intermodal in Palma (Mallorca), where also diesel-powered regional trains terminate underground in a station located at the edge of the city centre. Britomart is actually located at the site of the original railway station, but this was relocated in the 1930, some 1.5 km further east, and a Post Office was built there instead (this building is now the impressive station entrance). In a first attempt to improve suburban rail services, a tunnel was built to bring trains back into the city centre again. The terminal station, however, has already reached its capacity during peak hours, and I could experience that myself today when I had to wait for quite a long time until my arriving train could get a free track inside the station. For this reason and to improve access to the downtown area the construction of a city loop has been proposed. I would also consider this completely essential, especially as it would reduce travel times enormously for passengers coming into the city on the Western Line, which now takes a long detour, including a reversing manouvre at Newmarket station.

The two lines running south from the city centre take two different routes as they leave Britomart, but further south rejoin and most trains continue to Papakura. Only a few trains continue even further south on the main line to Wellington to terminate at Pukekohe. This network layout has the curious effect that actually the headway on the outer section, with trains about every 15 minutes, is better than on some inner sections, notably the Eastern Line via Sylvia Park. The stations south of Newmarket, however, are now also served by the Onehunga Line, a branch re-opened in 2010. The Western Line runs every 15-30 minutes, with every other train terminating at Swanson. This line used to be mostly single-track, but has been doubled in recent years all the way until just past Swanson. At the same time, all stations have been modernised or completed rebuilt, the one suffering the most changes being New Lynn, which was put into a trench to eliminate an important level crossing. Now only a few level crossings remain, and at some stations, also passengers have to cross the tracks. Provisions have also been made for electrification, and along some sections masts can already be seen along the tracks. The Southern and Eastern Lines, which have been double-track for a long time, have an older appearance, but several of the busier stations have already been modernised recently. Infrastructure work for electrification has also started here. Another major work completed in this upgrading process is the new station at Newmarket, an important shopping area, and Auckland's second „downtown“. To allow trains from the Western Line to change direction here, the station now has three tracks, but in the future it will also be possible to run direct trains from Grafton towards Britomart as the junction north of Newcastle is now a full triangle.

At present the service is provided with either diesel multiple units or push-pull trains with diesel locomotives (which look very much like shunting locos to me). The latter are much more pleasant as at least the noise inside the carriages is acceptable, whereas the DMUs are horribly loud. Both types cannot compete with electrically powered trains when it comes to acceleration, not to mention the exhaust fumes they deliver when leaving a station. Therefore it was high time for Auckland to go for full electrification! Let's hope that the new electric trains were designed to match the platform height, as the present rolling stock requires a high step up to climb into the vehicles.

Trains in Auckland are operated by Veolia, but they are integrated into the MAXX transport system, which also includes all buses and some ferries. A Discovery Pass, available at NZD 14.50, covers all these modes. The Auckland trains, however, need more onboard staff than any other transport system worldwide, I would say. Typically each carriage has its own conductor, at least every second carriage. They check the doors and sell tickets in a very traditional way, i.e. They carry with them a huge book of paper tickets, a different colour for a different amount of fare „stages“, plus all variants of concession tickets etc. Hopefully one day they will buy them small electronic devices which are able to print any ticket as needed if they want to keep the system of onboard personalised ticket sales. In any case, it is surprising to see so many staff onboard. One person for security reason is always welcome, but 3 or more on rather empty trains during off-peak is quite a luxury. On the Southern Line, the conductors have to fulfil yet another important job as long as no next-train indicators have been installed: they shout out the route of their train at every station. Modern indicators can already be seen at several refurbished stations. All stations have information panels with current timetables and basic information. All in all, the new design is very European.

The re-opening of the Onehunga Line must have been rather a political decision than part of an overall effort to create a rapid transit system. It was probably cheap to do, as the track was already there, but the line is only single-track and very slow, with numerous level crossings on its short route. It certainly served some politicians to say, hey, we did something. It has been proposed to extend the line to the airport, but this would then really give a rather embarrassing image of the city if tourist had to take this „airport express“ into the city. It would probably take as long as the current airport bus.

Yet another branch off the Southern Line will open in 1-2 years to connect the Manakau City Centre, a large new town with a shopping mall and several office buildings. This will, however, be a completely new line with an underground terminus at the egde of the town centre. I imagine that all buses in that area will be redirected to the new station. Hopefully express trains will then run to Britomart as several stations along the Southern Line have hardly any passengers, and like Westfield, may be closed altogether.

So these are my impressions on Auckland's suburban rail system, still a long way from being classified as 'adequate' but on good track. It will be interesting to see it in 10-20 years!

Check out also the UrbanRail.Net page for Auckland at