Last week we broke the story that electrification is running late and that the wires won’t be installed by the time the first trains arrive as previously promised. My post raised the attention of the Herald who have since run a few articles regarding it (one of which isn’t online). As a result of the extra attention Kiwirail provided quite a bit more information about what was happening. Here is their email.
This is an international scale project with many complexities. There have been challenges getting enough access onto the rail corridor amongst the increasing number of passenger and freight services operating in Auckland to build the traction system, which has meant it has taken longer to complete this part of the project than initially envisaged – there are many more trains running now than when the project was confirmed and finish dates set. This is a tension that we always need to manage.
Having said that we are working closely with Auckland Transport and this will not affect the introduction of the new trains into service.
When the first two trains arrive in September they will be able to run immediately beneath tested and powered up wires to begin their commissioning process. You have found the map I was referring to yesterday on our website which shows where the wires are already in place.
We expect to have traction infrastructure in place across the bulk of the network by Xmas, with the rest being completed over the summer block of line in January.
During the first three months of 2014 the focus will then move to finishing works and testing – so the network will be ready for AT’s planned introduction of the new trains into service in April.
Testing and tuning of the infrastructure will need to continue through until 2015 as it will need to have full length trains running beneath it frequently – this is after all brand new infrastructure.
The project is also on course to complete within budget – $500 million.
To confirm what we have already told you, signalling and clearance work is completed, and the Onehunga branch and the NAL between Westfield and Newmarket have been tested and commissioned. Wiring is already in place around the network as per the map on our website.
The next section to be commissioned will be Westfield to Wiri, which is where the EMU maintenance depot is, which is scheduled for early September, in time for the new trains. Beyond that we’ll continue to liaise with Auckland Transport so commissioning of further of sections of OLE lines up with their commissioning schedule.
As part of this part of the project we are also systematically putting up screens on bridges and other structures to prevent accidental contact with the overhead wires, and carrying out other necessary safety measures such as earthing and bonding.
We’d appreciate some mention of the safety aspects of the project too please – these wires carry 25,000 volts, so the public need to be treat the overhead wires and the fittings that carry them as live and dangerous at all times. The system is designed so that people doing ordinary things will not be affected – only reckless or mischievous behaviour could be dangerous. KiwiRail and Auckland Transport are working on a public safety campaign with regard to this.
There are now height restrictions at level crossings in the Auckland area – these are signposted at each crossing. These restrictions don’t affect ordinary motorists or pedestrians but those in vehicles or towing loads that exceed these restrictions must choose an alternative route or will need to gain permission to use the crossing – information on how to do that is on our website.
Unfortunately it sounds like the need to get the wiring finished is likely to mean another extensive rail shut down this Christmas. This is despite Kiwirail saying in an internal staff newsletter in December that shutdown at Christmas last year would be the last big one.
Almost certainly as a result of these delays, there are now going to be impacts on some evening train services starting next week. MAXX is now advising:
Buses replace trains weeknights from Monday 27 May
Dates: From Monday 27 May until further notice.
Times: From 8pm until the start of service the next morning, Sunday to Thursday
Buses will replace trains south of Otahuhu on the Southern and Eastern lines
These closures are required to enable KiwiRail to carry out major works associated with the ongoing upgrade and electrification of Auckland’s rail network.
Click here for the rail bus timetable
Please check timetable very carefully.
For further information on Rail Bus services (including rail bus stop locations),
please click here
Buses will be marked RAIL BUS. All valid tickets and passes currently accepted on trains will be accepted on Rail Bus replacements.
Buses cannot accommodate bikes, scooters or large personal items.
We apologise for any inconvenience caused
I certainly can’t wait for this project to be finished. Having a network that isn’t shut down at nights, weekends and at Christmas along with having faster, reliable and more frequent trains is going to have massive impacts on people’s perceptions of trains as well as patronage.
While the integrated ticketing project seems to have been an ongoing saga for some time now, it might not be the only public transport project that is running into trouble at the moment. Lately I have been hearing from a wide range of people about another high project that could be in trouble, electrification. Just to ensure there is no confusion it is probably worth reminding everyone that the electrification project I am referring to relates to the physical infrastructure being installed, this part of the project is being managed by Kiwirail. As far as I am aware, the electric trains and depot, which are managed by Auckland Transport, are on track with the first unit well into the construction phase and due to arrive most likely in September.
The electrification project itself has consisted of a number of smaller projects:
- Signalling – The overhead wires had the potential to interfere with the existing signals we had so the entire network needed to be re signalled to prevent that from happening. Regardless Auckland’s previous signalling system was fairly ancient so needed replacing anyway. I believe that with the completion of track works at Papakura this is now completed.
- Clearances – Many of the bridges that crossed the rail network didn’t have enough height to allow the wires to run under them. This has been resolved by either lowering the tracks or replacing the bridges. This has now been completed although work is still going on for the new Ellerslie Panmure Highway bridge as part of AMETI.
- Traction – This is the actual masts and wires.
Completed wires out near Swanson (thanks Geoff)
As mentioned the signalling and clearance works have been completed or are very close to being so, the problem is with the traction side of things. The traction contract was signed in mid January 2010 just before the new Newmarket station opened however even in the announcement I can’t find any information as to just when it was due to be completed. It has actually been surprisingly hard to find out exactly when the project was due to be completed but these.
Mr Quinn gave an assurance that with the news today of the consortium winning the tender, the work will be completed in 2013 in time for the first delivery of new electric trains
- This was from just over a month after the traction contract was signed.
”The infrastructure has to be completed before the rolling stock arrives in 2013,” he says.
The last section to be electrified will be the eastern line with all the infrastructure completed by the end of 2013
How long will it take to electrify the entire network?
KiwiRail is working to a deadline of 2013 to complete the infrastructure for electrification. The first masts started appearing on the Western Line in 2011, and the work is being completed in phases.
- There was also this slide in a presentation to the councils Transport Committee in October last year confirming that the wires would be completed by August. Note they also state that the section of Newmarket to Swanson would be energised in March yet currently there are no wires between Newmarket and Mt Albert
KiwiRail is using its last big summer shutdown of the region’s rail network to rearrange tracks at Britomart and two other locations before spinning the final segments of an electrical web which by August will cover about 85km of lines from central Auckland to Papakura in the south and Swanson in the northwest.
Basically everything I can find points to the wires being completed later this year but unfortunately that doesn’t match what I have been hearing recently so I went directly to Kiwirail to find out what they say. Here is their response:
The project is on course for completion in first quarter 2014. As you may know the sections of overheads on the Onehunga branch and the NAL between Penrose and Newmarket have been commissioned. The next section to be commissioned will be Penrose to the Wiri EMU depot, which will be in the third quarter of this year. Beyond that we are working closely with Auckland Transport to ensure we align commissioning further of sections of OLE with their programme for delivery and commissioning of EMUs.
It’s obviously quite clear right from the get go that the project won’t be completed this year and first quarter 2014 could mean the wires aren’t finished till almost April, up to 7 months late. Reading between the lines there is more concerning news with revelation that by the time the first train arrives, it is likely that the only section of wires fully completed and commissioned will be the section between the Wiri depot and Newmarket. I also suspect it means we are unlikely to see any wires up in Britomart until next year. That means it is unlikely that there will any electric train services till later in 2014 as there would still be quite a bit of time needed for testing and driver training, after all we don’t want our drivers misjudging things and ploughing into the end of the platforms.
Here is Kiwirail’s latest update from the 18th of March. Since that time I believe that the work has primarily focused on the section around the Westfield Junction.
All up this is very disappointing and given the current slow progress, I fear that even the completion date of first quarter 2014 could slip further. Further motorway projects these days always seem to come in both ahead of time and within budget, why is it we can’t do the same for PT projects?
The Coastal Pacific is KiwiRail’s scenic rail service that operates both ways between Picton and Christchurch on a daily basis.
In 2011 it had a major revamp, with new carriages featuring panoramic windows like the one below as well as a new café car.
However, last week KiwiRail announced that the Coastal Pacific scenic rail service between Picton and Christchurch was moving to a seasonal timetable, and would not be operating from 6th May to 26th September:
“The Coastal Pacific is losing almost $3 million annually, due in most part to a significant drop in the tourism and domestic travel market to and from Christchurch after the earthquake. These losses are highest through winter,” says KiwiRail’s General Manager, Passenger, Deborah Hume.
“Winter demand for KiwiRail Scenic’s long distance passenger services (May through September) is much slower than the summer tourist season. For the Coastal Pacific service, the drop in demand in these winter months is even more pronounced than the TranzAlpine, as this train serves a less well known and travelled route. Added to this, since the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, travel to and from the city has dropped significantly due to the loss of tourist related facilities and accommodation.
“Very low numbers of people used the train during last winter, although there was an increase during the school holidays. However, KiwiRail needs to sell 130 seats on each service to break even, and on some days only 30 people were on board.
To be losing three million dollars a year seems like a staggering amount, but it isn’t clear from the press release which costs are direct costs and which costs are contributions to KiwiRail’s fixed costs such as track access fees.
The management and cost accountants among you will know that as long as revenue from the service is covering the direct costs of operation and is therefore making a contribution to overheads, then in the short term it is viable for the service to continue.
Suspecting a significant amount of the claimed “loss” was in fact fixed cost charging, I asked KiwiRail if they could provide a bit more detail, which they have done:
TOTAL REVENUE 3,404,925
- People Related Expenses 403,429
- External Services 302,441
- Lease and Rentals 42,715
- Materials & Supplies 248,754
- Incidents, Casualties & Insurance 6,051
- Other Expenses 86,225
- Track Access 790,144
- Hook & Tow 2,349,051
- Mechanical 798,662
- Corporate Overheads 216,481
- Allocated Costs (Including insurance, marketing, finance and administration, HR, management, website, general operational expenditure etc) 1,183,908
TOTAL EXPENDITURE 6,427,860
There still isn’t absolute clarity about which of these expenses are fixed cost charges imposed by Kiwirail, but the internal charges that really stand out though are the “Hook & Tow” of $2.3m, the “Allocated Costs” of $1.2m and the “Track Access” fee of $790K. Combined, these transfer charges add up to $4.3 million and so are the major reason why the Coastal Pacific is “losing” $3m. (That figure of $3.4m in revenue from the service must be very pleasing for KiwiRail, by the way.)
From what I understand Hook and Tow is a cost recovery for the use of the locomotives that haul the scenic carriages. This seems excessive when the cost of a brand new diesel locomotive is just $4m. Presumably there is a distance based charging formula involved here, and also possibly a salary component for the engineer.
Track access fees seem high, but then it is a relatively long stretch between Picton and Christchurch, and there are fewer services to spread the cost over. As for “Allocated Costs” it isn’t clear if these are direct costs that relate to the operation of the service or if they are simply a contribution to head office expenses.
For comparison, someone has helpfully pointed out the projected costs of the Capital Connection for 2013/14 on the Better Transport forum:
- Hook and Tow – $843,028
- Track Access – $219,924
- Mechanical Costs – $368,640 (I presume this is for the carriages and genset van)
- Allocated Costs – $357,502
- Labour – $305,903
These figures were sourced from page 33 of this Greater Wellington Regional Council document.
Obviously the Capital Connection and the Coastal Pacific services are very different, but you do have to wonder about KiwiRail’s internal charging formulae. Presumably the Coastal Pacific won’t be required to make a fixed cost contribution during the period that the service isn’t running. It would be interesting to know if the freight services have to pick up the track access fee to compensate over winter.
This isn’t to say that the decision to cut the Coastal Pacific during the winter months was the wrong one (and obviously Kiwirail have access to the needed marginal direct cost data to make the call), but to blame a drop in tourism for a loss of $3m seems the wrong thing to be putting in a press release, as it feeds the public perception that regional rail can never be “profitable” in New Zealand.
The now annual Christmas rail shutdown has started for some parts of the network. The rail network closes fully for Christmas day and from Boxing day all lines will be closed as works are done to upgrade the network until Monday 7 January when parts will reopen. Crucially though, Britomart will stay closed while works are done in there and like last year when the line between Newmarket and Britomart was closed, passengers will be need to catch a bus for that final part of the journey.
Here is a bit of a summary of the works taking place around the network this Christmas:
- In Britomart, the new track arrangements will enable trains from both main lines to access all platforms, and run on either of the two tracks in and out of Britomart. This will enable much more flexible train movements in and out of the station, faster recovery from operating incidents, fewer delays as trains wait to get into the station and allow for further timetable improvements.
- The footbridge at Point Resolution in Parnell will be replaced.
- In Panmure work continues on the new Panmure Station and the old Ellerslie Panmure bridge will be demolished so that it can be rebuilt higher and wider to cater for electrification.
- At Otahuhu, major work is happening to re-arrange and upgrade the junction so that freight trains can enter and leave the Otahuhu rail yards at much faster speed and that should help to minimise delays for commuter services.
- At Papakura work continues on upgrading the station
- Between Papakura and Westfield, Kiwirail are expecting to finish stringing up the overhead wires. They are focusing on this section over the closure as it is the busiest in terms of normal train movements so the hardest to close. By the end of the shutdown they expect 60% of the network will have been wired up ready for our new electric trains.
- Out west at Mt Albert work is going on to upgrade the station. The old ramp from Carrington Rd has already been removed and works this shutdown will include getting all of the piling completed for the new pedestrian bridge
- Screens will be installed on bridges that cross over rail lines around the network to help prevent people from getting to the wires. More on this below.
- There will also be all sorts of other typical maintenance tasks carried out all around the network.
As mentioned above, screens are being installed across the network to help prevent people from getting close to the wires. Elsewhere in the country these are usually just a boring wire mesh but in Auckland, work has been done to make them more interesting and attractive. Here is what they look like.
For the various timetables and info, go here, are the key dates to remember are:
- Saturday 22 December to Monday 24 December 2012: Otahuhu to Pukekohe on Southern Line, Eastern and Manukau Lines closed with Bus Replacements.
- Monday 24 December: Reduced peak service on Southern / Eastern Lines.
- Tuesday 25 December 2012: No rail or rail bus replacement services.
- Wednesday 26 December 2012 to Sunday 6 January 2013: Full network closure. Bus Replacements operating across all lines.
- Monday 7 January to Sunday 20 January 2013: Eastern Line (Westfield to Britomart) and Newmarket Branch Line (Newmarket to Britomart) including Britomart closed with Bus Replacements.
I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a Christmas shutdown however thankfully this one should be the last. In an internal staff newsletter Kiwirail describe this shutdown as the last big push. That is because my understanding is that they need to have everything ready for when our new trains arrive. I’m looking forward to a time when we don’t close our rail network for weeks on end every single year.
A few months ago we learned just how fragile our train system is, even after re signalling it when the the whole system was brought to its knees due to a faulty power supply that that fed the desk from which the Auckland network is managed from. Last night something similar happened once again with some sort of signal fault once again taking out the entire Auckland network for a period of time during the rush hour.
Auckland train services are starting to move again after hundreds of Auckland train commuters were left stranded at Britomart Station.
An announcement was made about 6.25pm that no trains were running due to a signal failure in Auckland. The failure was originally reported as being in Wellington.
By 7pm, Auckland Transport said signals were now operational, but passengers should still expect “significant delays”.
It was originally reported as being another fault in Wellington however Kiwirail is now saying the fault occurred in Auckland. Regardless of where the fault originated it is pretty shocking that we have now had two faults that have taken out the entire network at such a critical time, especially considering the system is virtually brand new. This kind of problem is clearly not a good look and just last month at the Auckland Transport board meeting staff promised that we wouldn’t see any repeat. My guess is there will be some sort of investigation that occurs where there are a whole pile of fingers pointed and some small changes will be made but once again no one will really be held accountable.
In may ways it is a real shame as it contributes to taking the gloss off what is meant to be a pretty high quality and advanced system even compared to many other places around world. What has been installed is a European Train Control System Level 1 (ETCS Level 1) although some parts of it aren’t even active yet and are waiting on the arrival of our new trains to take advantage of the new features. One thing that has gone live recently is an automatic signalling where a computer controls most of the mundane tasks of running the network freeing up staff to deal with the more complex issues. It is the first time that the system has been used in New Zealand and here is a bit of an explanation as to how it works:
Automatic Route Setting works within the following way: a computer database holds the master timetable for the Auckland network. The data includes train numbers, train types, all stop times, platform allocations and routes.
Operational Planners then programme preset “commands” and “check conditions” to set points and clear signals.
These commands are saved as “triggers” and associated to a particular location on the track. When a train is detected at that track location, the computer identifies the train number, and therefore its route.
The logic then looks at the “check conditions” (such as making sure other trains have passed or the train crew have operated a train-ready device) and if they comply, it will clear the relevant signals for the correct path. All this happens in seconds.
If the conditions for a particular command are not met, then the system will retry for up to five minutes before alerting the Train Controller that the route will not clear.
Over time, more and more trigger locations will be set throughout the network.
For example, a southbound train arriving at Ellerslie will trigger a command to set the route at Penrose to go to or from Westfield. Those signals will be set by the computer if it sees no other trains in the way.
If there is another train present, the train will trigger another request when it reached a second trigger closer to Penrose Junction. If there is still another train in the way, that command will keep trying until the track is
free or five minutes expires.
This means the train is getting the correct route as quickly as possible after the track is free.
Kiwirail gave an update to the transport committee last week on progress with electrification in Auckland. Some of it was fairly detailed and it used a lot of acronyms but I will try to pull out the bits that I think are interesting or important. First up there are still a handful of projects that are still going on as part of Project DART which was the project that also included double tracking of the western line. There may be a little bit of a typo on here though as my understanding is the Britomart arrangement is happening over Christmas this year and that is also what is mentioned later on in the document.
Further on it is mentioned that all of the bridge clearances have now been resolved with the exception of the works associated with AMETI which we heard will be resolved over Christmas this year. Signalling has also been completed although there still work to be done around Papakura as the upgrade there continues. When it comes to the overhead wires themselves (traction) it seems like good progress is being made with ~75% of the mast foundations having already been installed and over a third of the masts in place.
It has however taken some to get to this stage so I guess things will go up pretty quickly over the next 10 months as everything is planned to be completed by August next year when the first of our new trains arrive.
We will of course see another large network shut down this year with no trains being able to get to Britomart from Saturday 22nd Of December till Monday 21st of January. There will be some trains running to Newmarket but it will be very similar to last year with shuttles from between there and presumably Grafton to town. I am really looking forward to these long summer shut downs being a thing of the past. Here is the work planned for the shut down this year.
The owners of any heritage cars or buildings will tell you that it costs a lot to keep them operating in good condition. Well it’s not surprising that the same is true for our trains, some of which were actually museum pieces before Auckland bought them and put them back to work for another 20 years. Well its been about a year since we last heard about it so is time that we were reminded by the NZ Herald. In an article today they say:
Auckland trains are costing almost as much as the region’s buses to run, even though the buses carry almost five times as many passengers.
Council transport chairman Mike Lee is blaming a lack of competition, in which train operator Veolia had its management contract extended for more than two years in March without public notification.
Although the trains made a record of almost 11 million passenger trips in the year to June 30 – compared with 2.5 million when Britomart opened nine years ago – that cost ratepayers and the Government $105.7 million.
It was well up on $87 million for 9.9 million passengers the year before, after hefty increases in track access charges paid to KiwiRail and in Veolia’s management fee.
Buses cost $110.9 million, but made 54.7 million passenger trips.
Wellington, with a simpler operating system under which KiwiRail runs electric trains as well as maintaining the tracks, spent $73 million on 11.3 million trips.
Now first I agree that $105 million is a huge amount of money and a simple way to think about it would be to divide that by the 11 million trips a year to come up with a pretty high per passenger payment. Of course that amount ignores fares, which probably come to somewhere in the $30-40 million a year range – with that money going directly to Auckland Transport (rather than the situation with most bus contracts where the operator pockets the fares and gets topped up with a subsidy). It also ignores the fact that rail trips are, on average, much much longer than bus trips. This is noted in the article:
Average rail trips of about 16.5km are also longer than bus rides of 6.6km, and transport planners point to the far greater congestion relief given to motorists by trains, as buses share roads with cars and trucks.
The concerning bit is more in relation to where this $105 million goes and the rate of increase we’re seeing. This is best highlighted in the NZ Herald graphic that accompanies the article:
The really big jumps are in the amount paid to Veolia, which more than doubles between 2010/2011 and 2012/2013. As the actual number of trains in operation hasn’t doubled over this period (in fact it’s hardly increased at all) this is difficult to understand. The other big area of increase relates to track access charges – basically a payment to KiwiRail for one public entity to utilise the network of another public entity. A big money-go-round.
I also presume the big jump in 2011/12 might have something to do with all the train services provided during the World Cup and perhaps the beginning of loan repayments for the new electric trains – even though the operating cost savings they bring are not yet being enjoyed.
And this is the critical thing here. At the moment our trains have a ticketing system from the 1950s that requires a huge number of staff members on each train. It also has trains from the 1960s and the huge maintenance bills that must come with them. But all this is due to change over the next few years: integrated ticketing should result in a far less labour-hungry operating model for the rail system while the new electric trains will be far far cheaper to operate and maintain compared to what we have now. Rail operating costs will look ugly for a couple of years yet, but the real focus should go on ensuring that these costs come down – even while rail services are further improved to become an integral part of the frequent transit network – as a result of electrification and integrated ticketing.
Hopefully we’ll also finally see the rail contract going out to tender and an operator come in that’s far better than Veolia.
Just a quick public service reminder that the last two “Talk Trains” sessions are tonight at Britomart, 5:00pm to 6:00pm and tomorrow night at Newmarket, 5:00pm to 6:00pm.
Senior managers from Veolia Transport, Auckland Transport and KiwiRail, will be at the sessions to answer questions customers may have about a wide range of topics from infrastructure, to timetables, maintenance, seating and the future of rail.
Every year we hold these sessions at key stations to find out what our customers want and discuss how we can improve train services to make rail the preferred public transport option.
Ticketing and on-time performance are two issues that come to mind…
This post is a little bit of a rant about something that has been annoying me. Recently a change was made to how city bound trains operate through New Lynn which has resulted in dwell times being considerably slowed down. In the past trains would turn up at the platform, train staff would go though their normal procedure and then the train would depart. The signalling system had already picked up that the train was approaching the station and had activated the level crossing at the nearby Portage Rd.
New procedures mean that the train manager now needs to get off the train and has to walk to a box in the middle of the platform to swipe an electronic token which will then activate the crossing and signals. Now this may not sound too bad but I have often noticed that the train manager is not in a carriage that is close to where the box is meaning that they have to walk down the platform to do this and some even walk all the way back before closing the doors so the train can proceed. All up I have noticed that this adds up to 30 seconds to the stop at New Lynn which just makes it that much harder for trains to reach Britomart on time. In many ways this is the same sort of thing that used to have to happen under the old Mt Albert station and was something that was meant to have been eliminated with our new signalling system.
Of course there needs to be a reason for this change and unfortunately I don’t know what that reason is but is most likely to do with the length of time the barriers were down. The problem is that Portage Rd isn’t heavily used and normally I will only see a very small handful of cars waiting for trains to cross yet at in the morning peak trains already have hundreds of people on them by this point. To me it feels like we are now deliberately delaying trains just so that we can make it easier for a few drivers.
So Auckland Transport/Veolia/Kiwirail are you able to give us an explanation as to why you are now holding up packed trains at New Lynn. Better yet can you scrap this stupid policy and go back to the one that seemed to perfectly fine up until recently as in my books saving 30 seconds for a few hundred people on a train is far more important than making a few cars having to wait a bit longer.
Today I accompanied a group of Norwegians on the 830am InterIslander ferry from Wellington. After a short stop Picton for lunch we boarded the Coastal Pacific bound for Christchurch at 1pm.
Without doubt the Coastal Pacific is a superb rail journey. Fantastic views of rolling green hills, snowy topped mountains, surf-swept beaches, and braided rivers avail themselves along the entire length of the trip.
The recently refurbished KiwiRail carriages were an unexpected but welcome treat – comfortable chairs, good lighting, wood paneled ceiling, and generous over-head luggage storage capacity. The outdoor viewing area was a relatively unique kiwi addition and provided not only fresh air but also reflection-free photo opportunities.The best innovation, in my humble opinion, were the extra windows incorporated into the ceilings of the carriages, which ensured we were bathed in copious amounts of natural light.
In my opinion, the worst part of the Coastal Pacific experience was navigating oneself from the ferry to the Picton Rail Station. To provide some sense of the navigation challenge facing your average traveler you should check out the station on Google Street View. I have inserted the general view as one approaches the station below.
Here we have what I call a “camo-station”, that is a train station that tries to hide from the world (Te Mahia in Auckland being the best example). It is not until you actually pass the vehicle entrance to the Picton Train Station that I could see a sign indicating the station itself – and this sign is somewhat ironically designed for vehicles.
Nonetheless, my overwhelmingly positive experience on the Coastal Pacific got me pondering (as one does) the future of passenger rail in New Zealand. Note that when I say “passenger rail” I am not referring to the urban rail networks that operate in Auckland and Wellington (which are the usual topic of conversation on this blog); instead I am referring to inter-city, long-distance rail journeys of the type that is more common in Europe.
New Zealand also confers some natural advantages to passenger rail. Our beautiful but tortured scenery makes driving difficult. Moreover, many visitors to these shores come from countries that drive on the right side of the road, for whom the thought of driving long distances a rather intimidating prospect. On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge that passenger rail in New Zealand will rarely compete with cars and planes for short and long distance trips respectively. Moreover, outside of the upper half of the North Island our densities are generally too low to warrant considerable capital investment, of the type found overseas.
Passenger rail’s competitive advantage therefore seems to be for relatively scenic trips over distances that are sufficiently far that driving is onerous, but not so far that it’s worth the hassle of getting yourself to/from the nearest airport. And when you look at New Zealand’s existing passenger rail network (illustrated below), we find that the two most successful services, namely the Coastal Pacific (Picton-Christchurch) and Tranz Alpine (Christchurch-Greymouth), tick all of the aforementioned boxes. Both services offer spectacular scenery and take about 4-6 hours.
The recently re-launched Northern Explorer is actually the exception: It takes 12 hours to complete a trip between Auckland and Wellington. I have taken the Northern Explorer twice and both times were, shall we say, not particularly pleasant. The trip is long and not particularly scenic compared to the Coastal Pacific.
For this reason I’d like to suggest that KiwiRail consider terminating the Northern Explorer at National Park. The “leftover” service could then be reinvested into a new service that would operate between Auckland and Rotorua or Tauranga. Truncating the Northern Explorer at National Park and reinvesting the service in this way has several interesting implications:
- Doubles frequency between Auckland and Hamilton;
- Justifies re-opening Hamilton’s downtown/underground rail station (which sits under the current bus station); and
- Provide rail service to reasonably large and new rapidly growing cities in the Upper North Island.
The down-side is that locations between National Park and Waikanae receive no service. There is also a potential downside in terms of network structure: Abandoning service south of National Park effectively segregates New Zealand’s passenger rail networks in the North and South Islands.On the other hand I suspect few passengers actually travel through by rail from South to North Islands and the few that do might be convinced to use a bus and/or plane.
I’d be interested to know what others think about the merits of such a change. Is the new service a better option than the southern section of the Northern Explorer? It seems to me that the latter ties up a lot of passenger rail resources that could be better used elsewhere, but I’m happy to be corrected.