Auckland rail patronage has slumped to below 10 million passengers trips over the past 12 months, dragging down overall public transport figures.
After approaching 11 million trips a few months ago, rail custom for the year to the end of February was 9,996,066 trips.
That follows almost 10 years of spectacular growth in which patronage more than quadrupled since Britomart opened in 2003.
The decline is likely to embroil Auckland Transport's board in more soul-searching at its monthly meeting this afternoon.
Custom fell by 8.5 per cent across the rail network over the past year, and by 13.1 per cent on the western line, reducing overall public transport patronage to 69.5 million passenger trips against 70.7 million for the previous 12 months.
But transport board chairman Lester Levy - who took on the job in November - yesterday cautioned against reading too much into statistical comparisons with last year, and said he would prefer to see what this month delivered, following the return of tertiary students to trains.
Among difficulties in drawing comparisons was an extra working day in February last year, when a rush of purchases by students of 10-trip tickets also inflated patronage figures, in addition to bumper patronage during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The abolition of 10-trip tickets in favour of electronic Hop cards means patronage is no longer measured in advance of travel.
Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who in 2011 celebrated reaching 10 million annual passenger trips with a big train-themed cake at Britomart, acknowledged yesterday that there had "obviously been a blip in rail patronage as we get the network ready for our new electric trains and we introduce integrated ticketing".
"Auckland Transport assure me that reversing that blip is their number one priority," he said.
Dr Levy acknowledged that Auckland Transport could not wait for the introduction of electric trains next year, and said marketing moves to attract new passengers were planned.
He did not rule out extending weekend and other off-peak services, as recommended by the Campaign for Better Transport and Auckland Council transport chairman Mike Lee, but said cost was an issue.
Mr Lee did not want to comment before today's board meeting.
But Campaign for Better Transport convener Cameron Pitches said he believed fare evasion, which Auckland Transport admits could be practised by as many as 10 per cent of passengers, was worsening under the new ticketing system and believed the council organisation needed to lift its game.