The state government has defended a 55,000 drop in patronage on the Hunter Line, saying the way they collect data is changing.
A Transport for NSW spokesman says the figures, which are based on paper tickets and Opal Cards, reflects a fluctuation as the system becomes entirely electronic.
He said the data would become more accurate after paper tickets were completely phased out.
There were 128,018 journeys recorded on the Hunter Line between January and March 2015, down from 183,333 in the same period in 2014.
There were 32 per cent fewer journeys recorded in January 2015 than in January 2014, 28 per cent in February 2015 compared to February 2014 and 26 per cent fewer in March 2015 compared to March 2014 .
Patronage figures for December 2014 showed there were 43,205 journeys on the line.
This included journeys after the line was cut at Hamilton on Boxing Day.
At the end of January 2015, this had dropped 20 per cent to 34,325 – almost 9000 fewer journeys in a month.
Transport advocate and analyst Darrell Harris said the data was confusing and made it “impossible to get accurate statistics on the line”.
He said this was because Opal cards only recorded a journey on the line where the passenger taps on.
In other words, when a passenger travels from Maitland to Newcastle, they are recorded as making one journey on the Hunter line.
However, when they tap on at Hamilton to return to Maitland, their journey is recorded on the Newcastle line.
People travelling to the Central Coast, Sydney and Lake Macquarie also contribute to Newcastle’s total in the same way.
This results in a dramatic increase in patronage falsely attributed to the Newcastle line and a corresponding decrease recorded for the other lines, including the Hunter line.
While the Transport for NSW spokesman did not comment on the matter, the Bureau for Transport Statistics acknowledged the impact of the issue in Sydney in the fine print of its latest data.
“With Opal, the current methodology uses the tap on location to assign the station and line. With many return journeys originating from the CBD, this has resulted in a rise in CBD patronage and less growth from most other lines,” he said.
“The current method of assigning Opal journeys to line is causing a marked increase in patronage attributed to the CBD.”
Mr Harris said he was worried the apparent drops showed in the data could be used to justify further cuts to services in the Hunter.
The Transport for NSW spokesman said there were no plans to reduce public transport resources in the Hunter.
“Newcastle and the Hunter remain a high priority for the NSW government and there are no plans to reduce funding for public transport services in these areas,” he said.
Mr Harris said the truncation, which forced Maitland’s train commuters to transfer to buses at Hamilton station, meant driving was the last direct way to travel to work in Newcastle.
He said the truncated service was a disincentive to use public transport but the issues with the data meant it was impossible to tell how the number involved.
“Maitland is the third highest provider of employees to Newcastle’s CBD and 32 per cent of these people travelled by train,” he said, citing the most recent Bureau of Transport Statistics released in 2011.
“As the roads became more congested cars and buses got worse, less reliable.
“The train became more competitive.
“But [the state government] killed that. Just by cutting the train they’ve taken [commuters to Newcastle CBD] below 2006 levels.”
Save Our Rail responds
Save Our Rail’s Kim Cross says the statistical drop in patronage is a sign the state government’s truncation of Newcastle’s heavy rail line is a failure.
“ The statistics tell us the service is a total failure,” Mrs Cross said. “The train was a reliable service.”
She said she had been frequently contacted by people, including her daughter, who had missed trains as a result of bus delays.
“[The shuttle bus service] started out quite reliable, but it became less reliable.
“What’s really unreliable is the outbound journey from Newcastle to Hamilton by bus.
“It’s predictability and cost efficiency made [commuting by train] attractive, but now the opposite is true.”
Mrs Cross said the arrangements at Hamilton Station, which included crossing the tracks to board the train, further disadvantaged elderly people and those with disabilities.
“From a Maitland perspective, our elderly or people with disabilities find it so much harder to cross the tracks,” she said.
Mrs Cross said the increased use of cars had put unnecessary strain on Newcastle’s parking facilities and simultaneously allowed the government to justify investing less money in public transport.