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Why It’s Faster To Run Than Take The Train In Auckland

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Phil Stewart
Phil Stewart

There is one good reason why Aucklanders don’t commute by rail. It’s slow. But just how slow is it? To find out, I decided to run against a commuter train over a 7 km distance to see who was fastest.

Here’s the scenario. I live in Kingsland, and recently I’ve been working at premises right by Ellerslie Racecourse in Greenlane. And this week my car is being serviced. These circumstances have given me the opportunity to experiment with alternative ways to travel at the start and end of the day.

My first choice of non-car transport is always to run. I like running. If my travel distance is less than about 8 km, I will generally choose to run.

I like trains (I used to live in Tokyo, see). However, living in Auckland provides few opportunities to catch the train. We only have 3 train lines in the city, serving a very small percentage of the population. It is very unlikely that your origin and destination points will both be within a short distance of a train station. But I am one of the lucky few these days: my home and my daytime destination are both 5 minutes walk from a station. A rare event and one that should be taken advantage of.

On Wednesday I would run to and from Greenlane, and on Thursday I would catch the train.

The crucial part of running cross-town is always selecting the shortest route. Here’s how I ran between Kingsland and Greenlane:

The door-to-door distance is 7.5km; from Kingsland to Greenlane stations is 6.5km. 

Here’s something a little strange. When you use the rail journey planner to select your trip across town, the first option the service provider gives is for you to walk. Hmmm…when you specifically ask for train services, the first thing they suggest is that you walk. A vote of no confidence in their own service? A brag that trains are faster than walking?   

Race results: 


Door-to-door, the run took 40 minutes, and the train took 58 minutes

From Kingsland station to Greenlane station: run 33 minutes; train 39 minutes 


Door-to-door, the run took 38 minutes, and the train took 43 minutes

From Kingsland station to Greenlane station: run 31 minutes; train 28 minutes 

What does this all mean?

  • Well, purely racing the train from station-to-station proved to take about the same time. In the morning, I beat the train by 6 minutes. In the evening, the train beat me by 3 minutes.
  • Door-to-door, I am faster than taking the train. Total journey was 18 minutes faster in the morning and 5 minutes faster in the evening. Why is door-to-door different to station-to-station? Because when taking the train, I walk to and from the stations. When I’m running, I of course run that same distance. That is where the train lost its advantage: the slower speed of getting from your home or work to the station.
  • Actual time sitting in a moving train was 14 minutes in each direction. This is crucial. In the morning, train time station-to-station was 39 minutes. The other 25 minutes was taken up transferring trains and having to wait for the next service. Not cool.

It was the time spent waiting that ruined the train's chance of victory 

What else does this mean?

  • This journey distance is like a ‘break-even’ distance. Station-to-station times are about the same; there is no real time difference between running and taking the train. If the distance between stations were shorter, running would become faster; if the distance were further, the train would become faster.

You can't win a race against a long-distance train 

  • The train has an inherent disadvantage: the necessary train-and-platform transfer at Newmarket. Without this transfer, station-to-station time both-ways would be 14 minutes, and I would have been well beaten. The incompleteness of the Auckland rail network – not the slow speed or infrequency of the trains – is what allowed me to win. This incompleteness is currently being addressed, so I’m glad I tried this race now and was able to score victory.
  • Most of the disadvantage of train travel in Auckland comes from time travelling from home or work to the train station. Only 1.5% of the population lives and works within 20 minutes walk of a train station. For everyone else, that’s 98.5% of the population, the train becomes unviable compared to road transport, or of course running.
  • Given how close the times are, time should not be the critical factor for me deciding how to travel. I can therefore base my decision on other things – like whether it’s a nice day to be running outside, or whether I will use the run as my exercise for the day. That’s what’s more important than saving 20 minutes in a day.
  • When my car returns from the garage, everything changes. The car journey is 15 minutes door-to-door. 15 minutes. That’s a significant time saving and is hard to resist. And it’s good when the weather is bad. And it’s probably a little cheaper than taking the train too.

Why was running faster?

1. The train couldn't beat me because of the necessary transfer of trains at Newmarket station. It took too long for me to walk between stations and then wait for a train.

2. For most commuters, the train is too slow because of the distance they have to travel just to get to a station. 

Which method of travel is better overall?

That’s an easy one. Running at the start or end of the day, or both, is such a worthwhile experience. Especially if you are sitting down in front of a computer for some hours. Just being able to get out at the end of the day and get fresh air and get moving is very valuable. And in the morning too it gets the metabolism going and gets oxygen and blood flowing. It’s hard to beat that.

Running to commute everyday - 15 km a day and 75 km a week – will not work for me: it will be too hard on my ankles and knees. Although now that I have found an interesting running route I’m quite sure that a couple of times a week I’ll run for as long as I’m based here.

And as long as I remain faster than the train. 

Enjoy your running, and commuting.  

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