NSW public transport satisfaction soars, despite overcrowding and delays


Sydney, Australia – October 22, 2015: Passengers taking Sydney train in the airport terminal.

If Sydney’s crowded trains, slow-running buses and a city centre ripped-up by the resurrection of trams sounds like a formula for commuter revolt, think again.

People there just can’t get enough of public transport.

Despite having plenty of challenges, commuter satisfaction with public transport in New South Wales has continued to climb strongly — sometimes in double digits — according to the latest report card from the Audit Office of New South Wales.

“STA did not meet any punctuality targets during the year.”

It’s a paradox that vividly demonstrates how clear, evidence-based decisions on transport policy coupled with smarter service delivery and strong communications can turn around negative public perceptions.

The travelling public might not enjoy the NSW transit system’s persistent problems, but at least they’re not blaming them on the operators or the government.

It’s an opinion coup fuelled by the more than $20 billion being poured into expanding, overhauling, reconnecting and sometimes replacing a transport system that serves an historically un-planned city.

“Between November 2012 and May 2016, the Transport Customer Satisfaction Index (TCSI) showed overall customer satisfaction with all public transport modes improved ten percentage points on a patronage-weighted basis (from 79 per cent to 89 per cent),” the NSW Audit Office found.

Better still, for the same period “customer satisfaction for all modes of transport increased” with trains jumping 9% to 88%; buses by 10% to 89%; ferries by 3% to 97%; and light rail by 5% to 96%.

Ready to roll: another 24 sets of Waratah trains are coming.

Buying satisfaction

The ingredients for increased satisfaction aren’t hard to spot.

An all-out push to increase the frequency and number of services, especially on busy trunk lines like those to Sydney’s west, is producing tangible results — especially trains running on time.

“Passengers on the Inner West Line crammed in at an average load of 141%.”

Having the money to spend on upgrades doesn’t hurt either. On the day of the audit’s release NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced another $1.5 billion “capital boost” and purchase of another 24 sets of Waratah eight car trains to “address the dramatic 21% growth in patronage forecast over the next 5 years.”

Ticket queues have also been largely eliminated, thanks to the introduction of the re-loadable Opal smartcard ticket that will soon be ported direct to mobile phones with contactless payment chips like London’s Oyster Card.

And even crowded trains can run on time.

For 2016, Sydney’s suburban train services managed a score of 94% for punctuality, punching through a target of 92%. Intercity services, like those to Newcastle, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains missed their 92% punctuality target at 89%.

“The key factors impacting punctuality included poor levels of reliability from the ageing intercity fleet and network incidents,” the Audit Office report said.

Old trains extracted their price, but that adherence to punctuality is something Brisbane could only dream of after it literally ran out of train drivers, prompting the departure of Queensland Rail’s chairman and CEO.

More popular, more crowded

More frequent and reliable trains are also more popular, a factor that’s pushing up already stretched capacity levels on the transport network.

Citing “strong patronage growth” the audit noted “the number of services above the crowding benchmark” crept up to 6% in 2015, up from 4% for September 2014. More broadly, passenger patronage on trains jumped a solid 10.7%.

Just how tight the squeeze is getting on some services has also been laid bare.

“TfNSW should consider including financial penalties for not meeting each punctuality KPI.”

Citing a “crowding benchmark” used by Sydney Trains that gauges the “percentage of peak suburban services with a load greater than 135 per cent of seating capacity”, commuters are increasingly standing on their way to work.

On the Western Line (Parramatta) morning peak loads ballooned from 113% to 134% (also September 2014 to September 2015) while passengers on the Inner West Line crammed in at an average load of 141% for September 2015.

Fine time for late buses?

If Sydney’s trains are enjoying a passenger renaissance, spare a thought for bus travellers left at the mercy of the city’s ever increasing traffic volumes.

“Most punctuality KPIs were not met by all bus operators,” the Audit Office report says, recommending that a financial sting be applied to private operators that persistently run late.

Bus journeys start well, but they soon slide into lateness.

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How bad? This graph is not upside down. Source: NSW Audit Office / TfNSW

“Private bus operators met punctuality targets for the start of the trip, but almost never met them for the middle or end of the trip,” the Audit Office report said.

“TfNSW should consider including financial penalties for not meeting each punctuality KPI in future contracts with bus operators.”

It’s probably a good thing the government is unable to impose penalties on bus services it owns itself through the State Transit Authority.

“STA did not meet any punctuality targets during the year,” the Audit Office report said, adding that “STA has not met the punctuality target in any of its four metropolitan contracts for the last four years”  noting that “large variations can occur from the impact of traffic events”.

Lateness is now such an issue that Transport for NSW (TfNSW) is working with the STA on “punctuality initiatives” and has even established an “On-Time Running Working Group to work collaboratively on delivering improved punctuality.”

Overcrowding? There’s an app for that.

Late buses are usually full buses — but how full is an open question.

“Crowding information is not published for buses in any contract region, despite bus operating contracts requiring this information to be reported to TfNSW. There are no target measures on crowding for bus operators in all contract regions,” the Audit Office report said, recommending that statistics be collected.

But there is crowd-sourcing to estimate overcrowding.

“Since September 2016, bus customers can use the TripView application (app) to see how full a bus is before it arrives. This gives them the option to board or wait for the next service,” the Audit Office report said.

Of course, there’s less of an option if it’s a completely full bus with noone wanting to get off and it just whizzes by disappointed commuters. But at least you can guess that, thanks to the fact the app uses data from the Opal transport smartcard to tell how many people are on a given service.

The app uses Opal data to give customers’ smartphones live information about seating availability when planning trips.

Remarkably, bus commuters are complaining less, with a 15% decrease in complaints from 2015 to 2016 to 57,196 documented annoyances.

What people really want (and don’t want)

In broad terms of satisfaction, people found public transport safe and easy to access and use. They just want more of it, as the list below demonstrates.

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Source: NSW Audit Office / TfNSW

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