Generations dreamed the wires,
Doubters shook their heads in scorn.
Brave men vowed that they would build it
From their faith electrification was born.
There it spans the miles of track
Speeding millions on their way
Glimpse of vision, hope and courage,
Portal to a brighter day.
Adapted from “The Bridge at Mackinac” by David Barnard Steinman
Today is a day that we’ve looked forward to for a long time, the official launch of electric trains in Auckland (of course tomorrow is even more important with the first day services will run). I’ll cover off the launch tomorrow and if you’re attending send, tweet or facebook us pictures of you on the train and we’ll add them to the post.
For today though I thought it would be good to look at the long road to electrification. The earliest proposals originated in the 1920’s as it was necessary to be able to get trains up the grade of the Morningside Deviation which was the original plan for the City Rail Link. The additional costs to electrify the network were part of the justification for dropping those earlier tunnel plans. One of the reasons the costs were so high was that they proposed to electrify all the way to Helensville. There were similar occurrences in the 1940’s, 50’s and 70’s and unfortunately no-one seemed to think to separate out the projects like is now happening. As mentioned earlier this week, we came incredibly close to actually having our rail network closed down but thankfully it survived and with investment has started to thrive.
The current push for electrification really started in 2006 when the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA), one Auckland Transports precursor organisations, created the rail development plan. It was a 10 year plan to revitalise the rail network and make use of the untapped capacity it held. Core to the plan was the upgrade to the rail network that had started a year earlier known as Project DART. That included double tracking the Western Line, upgrading the Newmarket station and the Newmarket junction, the upgrading of other suburban stations and the building of the Manukau spur line (reopening the Onehunga Line came later).
The plan noted that the electrification of the rail network was a key policy decision. If Auckland was to go down the track of upgrading the network then there was only so long the existing trains (and proposed SA sets) would last and that new rolling stock would be needed. ARTA investigated the difference between buying new diesel trains and electrifying the system. When compared in a business case that took into account whole of life costs, electrification came out slightly ahead of buying new diesel trains. One thing not included in that assessment but that also helped in tipping the favour towards pushing for electrification was that if Auckland ever wanted a CRL that electrification was required for it so buying new diesel trains with a 35-40 year life would have prevented the CRL until we bit the bullet and electrified.
However despite the business case for an upgraded and electrified rail network looked good, it failed to win over then Finance Minister Michael Cullen. In response to questions in parliament he often used the same arguments against electrification and for the massive spend up in roading that his government were pushing that the current government do about the City Rail Link. That included the infamous line “buses need roads, too”.
Eventually Cullen was able to be convinced and in the 2007 budget a new appropriation was added providing $550 million towards electrification and a few other things.
The government would pay for the wires and Auckland was to pay for the trains that use them. From memory both would fund the cost of this by imposing a regional fuel tax on Auckland of up to 5c each. With this plans started to be made to get the projects needed underway and ARTA even got to the point of issuing an expression of interest document for 140 carriages, each 20m long. That would equate to 35 four car.
When National won in 2008 one of the first things they did was to scrap the regional fuel tax and put the whole project on hold pending a review of the whole project. A working group reviewing electrification came back with the most drastic change being in the trains themselves. Instead of the 20m long carriages they would 24m long carriages and operate in multiples of three. Considerably fewer trains (75 carriages) were to be ordered and to make up the numbers electric locomotives were to be brought to haul around the SA carriages.
In late 2009 the government finally announced that it was proceeding with electrification and thankfully didn’t scale back the EMU order quite as much as the working group suggested. They said they would loan Kiwirail $500 million to buy 38 new EMUs (114 carriages). In another change they agreed to pay for the infrastructure without imposing those costs solely on Auckland which in my opinion was actually a fairer way to do it. The contracts for the physical works were signed a few months later in January at the formal opening to the new Newmarket station.
For the EMU’s it would then be some months before we heard anything more. In July 2010 Kiwirail announced four companies had been shortlisted to build the trains, they were Hitachi Limited; Hyundai Rotem; Bombardier Transportation Australia Pty Limited; and a consortium of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, SA. (CAF) and Mitsubishi Corporation. However things got odder just three months later when Kiwirail expanded the shortlist by another six companies. Three of those were Chinese companies which led some people to claim that there was some sort of government interference in the deal. This wasn’t helped when in April 2011 it was revealed that Bombadier and three other companies had pulled out. Shortly after the list was narrowed to two companies.
In September 2011 we received some hugely positive news that the government had agreed to help fund an additional 19 EMUs bringing the total to 57 (171 carriages). That would mean we no longer needed to buy some electric locomotives to haul around old carriages. One of the reasons for this change was that Auckland Transport had been busy behind the scenes working out just what the difference to the whole of life costs would be. Additionally there were huge benefits to having only one type of train running on the network plus the electric loco/SA combination wouldn’t be able to work in the CRL due to the fire rating the carriages have. A month later we learned that CAF had won the tender to build the trains. This is the first image we saw of what they may look like.
Electrification itself has plodded along and sadly fell behind schedule. It was originally meant to be completed “before the rolling stock arrives in 2013). That was to be by September 2013 and it now doesn’t appear that it will be finish till about September this year – although Kiwirail say it hasn’t affected the roll-out of the trains though.
We continued following progress of the first train being constructed in Spain along with the Wiri depot that will maintain them with Patrick even visiting the factory in Spain last year. In late August last year the first train arrived in Auckland where it was trucked to Wiri to be commissioned and begin testing. I was even lucky enough to get some early trips on them during testing. As testing increased and more trains arrived they have become an increasingly common sight around the rail network. Here’s a video showing one entering Britomart as a test a few days ago
It’s been a long and sometimes uncertain path towards this point but from tomorrow they should be a permanent fixture of Auckland for decades to come. Thanks to everyone who helped get us to this point.