Low tolerance for latecomers helps achieve over 90% punctuality, and electric trains should be even better.
Becoming ruthless with their whistles and no longer waiting for last-minute "runners" at railway stations has helped Auckland train crews to achieve record punctuality.
Although his trains still have some way to go to catch up with buses and ferries for time-keeping, Transdev managing director Terry Scott is delighted that 91.7 per cent of the rail company's services hit their destinations within five minutes of scheduled arrival times in January.
That was the first time they exceeded 90 per cent, setting the stage for more improvements once electric trains start running between Britomart and Onehunga in two months, with far greater acceleration and braking power than the existing diesels.
Transdev's client Auckland Transport is also relieved after struggling to see figures rising above 80 per cent in the long years of trying to keep the city's elderly trains running to schedule during track upgrades.
"If we can do that with 60-year-old trains, imagine what we can do with the EMUs [electric trains]," says the council body's chairman, Lester Levy, of the latest result.
Mr Scott recalls that when he arrived from Perth 16 months ago to head Auckland's rail network, trains would wait for people running to catch them.
That included an Auckland Transport board member who admitted to fellow directors in 2012 that a train driver waited for him as he ran down a ramp to a platform at Remuera Station on his way to their monthly meeting, prompting a call for crews to overcome their Kiwi tolerance and show no mercy to latecomers.
He looked shocked when told by the Herald of a train that stopped in the Britomart tunnel in 2005 after a passenger complained he had caught the wrong service, and was about to reverse to the station before the man jumped out and walked back down the tracks instead, breaking every safety rule in the book.
"That's terrible," he said.
"Effectively we were rewarding the person who was running late and punishing the 300 other people who were on time.
"Of course we can't do that because, not only does it slow that train down, but it can flow on to further trains and throw the whole network out."
So Mr Scott set about reintroducing whistles "which gets people moving", installing flashing blue lights at Britomart when trains are within 30 seconds of leaving, and instigating daily performance conferences.
"To hit 91.7 per cent is ecstatic news - it's a concentrated effort by all staff, drivers, training managers - you can see some urgency now," he said.
"That's obviously had some flow-on effect to the patronage."
He was referring to a 3 per cent increase in rail patronage for the 12 months to January from the previous year, to 10.7 million passenger trips, although Auckland Council infrastructure committee chairman Mike Lee is annoyed that people caught without train tickets were included in the latest figure.
Mr Scott admits to some nostalgia in running Auckland's trains, since they were the ones he caught as a schoolboy in Perth, which sold its old diesel fleet in the early 1990s while going electric at the start of a rail passenger boom.
But he is looking forward to farewelling most of them again once the $1.14 billion electrification project is completed next year.
Keen for zippy transport
Carmel Williams is generally pleased with the rail service from Manukau to Britomart but she looks forward to electric trains not breaking down as often as the city's old diesels.
Ms Williams is a recent convert to public transport, having started catching trains only when her office job was transferred to downtown Auckland eight months ago.
"It's been pretty good," she said
"I have some concerns with my train being cancelled, and this morning I had to wait 20 minutes for another one, but I don't want to go through traffic on the motorway.
"And the trains are usually on time, when they are running."
Despite suffering two train cancellations since the beginning of the year, Ms Williams said she would probably score the rail service at eight out of 10.
"But we could do with more evening peak trains," she said, having arrived at Britomart in good time to ensure she did not miss the hourly return service back home to Manukau.
As well as the greater reliability of electric trains, she looked forward to time savings on a run that now takes 40 minutes. "Although it would probably take longer on the motorway during the peak.
"And the cost [of train fares] is not too bad - probably about $200 a month, but by the time you add parking it would be more for a car."