Rail Safety and Level Crossings

This week is rail safety week – the week people are once again reminded not to do stupid stuff like cross the tracks when a train is coming. Sadly the need for it was highlighted once again last week after a man died after being hit by train at Walters Rd in Takanini. I believe it is the fifth death on the rail network in Auckland this year alone with other incidents occurring at Morningside, Orakei, Papatoetoe and Puhinui.

Rail Safety will be in the spotlight in August during Rail Safety Week in the Australasian-wide initiative to raise awareness about rail safety and encourage safe behaviour around trains and tracks. KiwiRail and TrackSAFE NZ are proud to support the week which runs from 10-16 August.

Every year there are hundreds of near misses between vehicles and trains – and every one of those is, in reality, a ‘near hit’. If you’d like to get involved you can find out more at http://www.tracksafe.co.nz/media/rail-safety-week

Rail Safety Week is an annual Australasian campaign which aims to increase awareness of the need for people to take care around the rail network. This is the 9th year the campaign has been run in New Zealand. Each year a number of stakeholder organisations come together to promote the key messages to target audiences and ensure the event is a success.

It aims to improve awareness of the need to be safe around the rail network, and what safe behaviour is. While Rail Safety Week is held from 10-16 August 2015, the goal is ongoing safer behaviour around the rail network.

This year’s key message is ‘Expect trains’. It aims to address complacency and distraction which are known factors that contribute to unsafe behaviour around the rail corridor. It will encourage people to stay alert around the rail network, whether at a station or a level crossing.

The chart below shows the number of casualties at level crossings or other places where people are on the tracks across the entire country for the 10 years to the end of 2014.

Level Crossing and Track Casualities

While it will be difficult to prevent every single incident, the one area we can easily target for improvement is at level crossings. Looking just at Auckland, within the electrified area there are around 45 crossings in total, 31 road/pedestrian crossings and 14 pedestrian only crossings – although some of these have multiple legs, for example at Papatoetoe. As you can see on the map below the majority are on the Western line with the rest are primarily along the short Onehunga Line with another cluster around Takanini.

Auckland Rail Crossings

As well as being a safety issue, crossings cause disruption for road users including creating localised congestion and while trains have priority through crossings, the extra signals and procedures needed for safety can impact on train operations. What’s more, the number of trains operated on the network is only going to increase in the future, initially as a result of electrification and later from the City Rail Link. As such removing level crossings has the ability to improve a number of areas in the transport network. So what’s happening with level crossings?

Auckland Transport have developed an evaluation criteria based on the approach Melbourne is using and with input from the NZTA, Kiwirail, Transdev and the Council. The have used this to assess all level crossings within the electrified area to determine the priority for removal or grade separation. This criteria includes looking at aspects such as how long the barriers will be down and safety risks. The highest priority crossing is Sarawia St which is the crossing that has the highest number of train movements through it in the country – more on that below. AT say that a number of crossings close together will need to be dealt with as packages. As such the crossings with high priority are:

  • Southern NIMT – Walters Road, Manuroa Road, Taka Street, Spartan Road
  • Western Line – Normanby Road, Porters Ave (within CRL footprint)
  • Western Line – Morningside Drive
  • Western Line – Woodward Road
  • Western Line – St Jude Street, Chalmers Street, St Georges Road
  • Western Line – Glenview Road
  • Western Line – Bruce McLaren

As far as I’m aware this isn’t in any particular order and AT say more work is needed on each of them such as traffic modelling, design and costing as well as business cases. They also won’t say just what option – removal or grade separation – they’ve selected for each crossing as some will require property purchases – the extent of which won’t be known until more design work is done.

As an example of the work that’s already happened the table below shows the impact on some of the crossings from the proposed train frequencies with electrification. The western line crossings obviously assume having 10 trains an hour however it’s not clear just when that will happen yet – if at all. As you can see many of the crossings will end up being closed for more than 20% of the time with Sarawia St up to 62% of the time. The reason some crossings on the same line have different figures is because this takes into account not just frequency but also the service pattern. That’s because at some crossings the timetable means the trains will pass through in each direction at about the same time which can reduce the amount of time the barriers are down while at other crossings this won’t happen.

Auckland Rail Crossings - impact of frequencies

The one crossing that is being working on right now is Sarawia St – or the Newmarket Level Crossing as AT call it. There AT plan to build a bridge to connect Laxon Terrace with Cowie St. In the last board report, it said staff are looking to get approval from the board this month to lodge a notice of requirement for the project. This is likely to be fiercely opposed by some of the Cowie St residents who don’t like the idea.

AT’s proposal is for a two lane bridge that is narrowed via chicanes to keep speeds low

Newmarket Crossing May 2015

Newmarket Crossing Cross Section

Outside of Newmarket there is nothing in council or AT plans for at least the next three years. After that the council’s Long Term Plan does list $26 million to improve crossings in the seven years after 2018 – although with most grade separated crossings likely to cost $5-$20 million that budget won’t go very far.

 

AT Board Report Feb-15

Auckland Transport’s board meet tomorrow and I’ve scoured the board reports for any interesting information. Here’s what caught my attention.

Projects

East West Link Connections

A detailed business case for the project is being worked on and will go to the board in April. AT still haven’t officially said which option they’ve chosen from their consultation back in October however this image – from a draft version of the RLTP (page 57) in the December Board meeting and which includes a note saying the map is not to be released to public prior to January 2015 – suggests it’s either option C or D.

East-West Priorities Dec-14

South-Western Multi-Modal Airport Rapid Transit (SMART)

AT say work on the design of the Kirkbride interchange includes future proofing for either light or heavy rail. The RLTP notes that this future proofing is costing AT $30 million which seems extremely high considering the rest of the interchange costs $140 million. One reason it could be so high is I understand the the NZTA team working on the project didn’t originally include rail in their designs despite rail to the airport having been on plans for decades along with other parts of the NZTA working with AT on the route.

Wynyard Quarter – Integrated Road Programme

We should start seeing more roadworks in the Wynyard Quarter in April with AT expecting to issue a contract mid Feb. Works for stage one are Halsey Street South and Gaunt Street between Daldy and Halsey. I’m not quite sure just what changes we’re going to see yet though.

Franklin Road

AT say they will feed back analysis of the submissions in March and I’ve heard rumours the current thinking greatly improved on what we saw earlier. An email update a few weeks ago suggested they were looking at whether parking between the trees could be retained in some situations.

Westgate

AT say the new mall being built as part of the new town centre is due to open in October this year and that new bus services to the area (new network) are due in October 2016. Those bus services will also need an interchange constructed and AT are trying to work out just how they will do that. They say resource consent will be needed and almost certainly will be publicly notified for which any submission will delay the project. A temporary interchange is being planned

Penlink

Work is still going on to update and amend the designation for Penlink and consent will be notified in early 2015 however a recent press release states that due to funding constraints, construction of Penlink is not anticipated until 2025. There are two open days about it, one this afternoon.

  • Thursday 19 Feb, 2pm-7pm, The Peninsula Retirement Village (441 Whangaparapoa Road, Whangaparaoa)
  • Saturday 21 Feb, 10am-2pm, Stillwater Boat Club (70 Duck Creek Road, Stillwater)

Otahuhu Interchange

The demolition of the old foot bridge and piling for the new station happened over the Christmas shutdown and AT say the construction for the interchange itself will begin in June. It’s due to be completed in February 2016 at which time the New Network for South Auckland can finally be rolled out.

Manukau Interchange

Consent is currently being sought for the enabling works for the interchange and AT are hoping to have the project completed in the first quarter of next year.

EMUs

At the time of writing the report AT say there were 42 of the 57 trains in the country and 32 of them had provisional acceptance. They also say that services in December were affected by issues with the signalling system and there had been some door closing issues. The door issues were upgraded over the break but the signalling ones are still being worked on.

Newmarket Crossing (Sarawia St level Crossing)

AT have created three concept designs and have taken feedback from residents and Manu Whenua into them. AT are wanting to lodge resource consent for the project in February and in the past have said that this project is required before they can deliver 10 minute frequencies on the Western Line. Given the stage it’s at and that some of the residents of Cowie St are bound to go to the environment court over it, it could be years before we see any peak frequency improvements out west.

Puhinui

AT are planning to upgrade Puhinui station with most of the works completed in March and April and with a new canopy installed in June

Swanson Station Park and Ride

The extended park & ride is expected to be completed by the end of April.

Onewa Rd

Also to be completed by the end of April are the works to deliver the westbound transit lane and shared path.

Other stuff

Parking

One piece of good news is that parking officers are experiencing the lowest recorded volumes of aggression towards them and there have been no serious harm injuries since October

AT also say the removal of earlybird parking has meant lease revenue is ahead of forecast and in addition casual occupancy and revenue in the downtown carpark is increasing. The latter part is particularly good as it means the carpark is being used by more people throughout the day which was exactly one of the aims of removing the earlybird prices.

Taxi’s on Grafton Bridge

A 12 month trial allowing taxi’s on to Grafton Bridge will start in late March and AT will be monitoring bus travel times, cyclist safety and amenity along with how many infringements get issued. If any significant issues arise during the trial it can be stopped. AT say the Taxi Federation and Cycle Action Auckland have been involved in the development of the proposal.

Personally I don’t think AT should have even entertained the idea of allowing Taxi’s on the bridge and should have actually gone the other way and making it bus only 24/7.

Double Decker Bus Mitigation Project

To get double deckers on the streets AT need to complete a whole lot of mitigation works to ensure the buses don’t damage things or get damaged themselves. This includes moving power poles, veranda modifications, kerb build-outs and tree pruning. They plan to have this work done by June to enable double deckers from Howick and Eastern to start running. Mt Eden is the next route planned for mitigation works which is meant to happen in the next financial year however AT are awaiting the outcome of the LRT proposal before making any changes.

On the Howick and Eastern Double Deckers, a press release yesterday announced the company was spending $12 million on buying 15 double deckers – most of which would be built in Tauranga. They will operate between Botany and the City Centre. The most interesting aspect of these buses is that they will also include free WiFi, power points and USB ports. Those are great additions and hopefully something we start to see become standard on all PT vehicles and I certainly think they should be on our new trains. The buses are from Alexander Dennis – the same maker as the small NZ Bus buses.

Decision made on Sarawia St

The Sarawia St level crossing has long been an issue for numerous reasons, these include:

  • It’s the only road connection for Laxon Terrace and Youngs Lane
  • It’s the busiest and most complex crossing in NZ in terms of rail movements thanks to the nearby Newmarket Junction and station
  • The gradient of the line through the area causes additional problems and added complexity
  • AT have said it will prevent higher rail frequencies due to the operational limitations.

To address the operational issues the crossing has to be closed but something needed to be done to provide the residents who rely on it access to and from their houses. Just over a year ago when AT started consulting with the local community and at the time they considered that the best option was resolve the access issue by building a new link through to neighbouring Furneaux Way. They were also considering a possible link through Newmarket Park and a bridge to Cowie St (a bridge to Sarawia St wasn’t possible due to the steep grades).

Sarawia St Options

Auckland Transport announced last week that they have finally decided what they are going to do with the Sarawia St level crossing.

AT has completed its analysis and made a decision on how Laxon Terrace will be accessed once the Sarawia Street level crossing (known as the Newmarket level crossing) is closed.

We have selected a road-over-rail bridge solution from Cowie Street to Laxon Terrace. The Cowie Street Bridge option was chosen due to it:

  • providing the safest access for all road users, compared to other options
  • accommodating all modes of transport, including pedestrians and cyclists
  • providing opportunities for improved connectivity to Newmarket Park and a planned cycling and walking route linking Parnell and Newmarket via the old Parnell rail tunnel
  • having the least disruption due to the main work site being located on railway land, away from the majority of residential properties.

The Cowie Street Bridge option will see no change to Newmarket Park or Furneaux Way. The impact on Sarawia Street will be limited to closure of the current level crossing, effectively making it a no-exit street.

In making its decision, we have endeavoured to balance the concerns of local residents and the wider community (including Newmarket Park users and rail patrons).

Development of the Cowie Street Bridge design is expected to start in March, with project completion scheduled for the first half of 2015. We are committed to working closely with local residents throughout the design and construction processes.

This is an interesting decision as at $6 million it was the most expensive of the three options and performed worse than the other two options in an economic assessment (which all benefited strongly from travel time savings to rail users). I strongly suspect it was the favourite option for those on the street though. The cheapest option was $2.6 million so less than half of the cost. Is this a case of AT just going for the easiest option due to less objections from locals? I couldn’t get an answer out of AT as to whether this was considered a roading or PT project (I’m going to assume the latter).

Also interesting is that AT are actively talking about using the old Parnell rail tunnel for a walking/cycling route.

Here’s where the bridge will go.

Cowie St Bridge

The news of this crossing has also reminded me that AT were working on a plan for what to do with all of the level crossings across the region. That was meant to have come out last year. I wonder what’s happened to it?

Fixing Level Crossings

A hot topic over the last few days has been the tragic accident that occurred at Morningside. A lady was struck by a train after one of the wheels of her wheelchair became wedged between the footpath and the rail. As you can see in this piece from Campbell Live, the state of the crossing was quite appalling. Its poor state had obviously been noticed by someone as there were even spray painted arrows indicating that a fix was required yet nothing had been done.

Morningside Crossing - Campbell Live

Click to watch the story

Works have now occurred to improve the crossing with some of the gaps filled in with asphalt. Such a simple solution that probably didn’t cost all that much and most likely would have prevented this accident begs the question of why it wasn’t done earlier.

Morningside Crossing - After

Photo thanks to Alex Burgess

While the crossing is now safer, it does once again raise the issue of level crossings in general. The ultimate solution is that we either grade separate the crossings or close the them all together. The former can cost a lot of money while the later can cut connectivity. After years of no changes, we finally saw some crossings removed as part of the New Lynn trench project, which was actually more a roading project than a PT project. AT are also talking about closing the Sarawia St level crossing, although I understand that some groups are pushing for pedestrian and cycle access to be retained, something I think is stupid.

The problem I have is that at this point in time, with the exception of Sarawia St, there appears to be no solid plans to actually do anything to resolve these level crossing issues. Level crossing removal sits the organisations statement of intent for 2011-2014 under major projects for study, investigation or design. Despite this the Regional Land Transport Programme for 2012-2015, which lists around $4.4 billion of spending over the three year time frame only includes $524,000 towards design, and even then it only occurs in the last year of the programme. The only level crossings that I know are planned to be grade separated in the future are Normanby Rd and Porters Ave, but they will only happen as part of the CRL.

If we want to get serious about fixing these danger spots, it is time that AT started acting on it. I would like to see AT re-jig some of their plans and commit a some real money, say $10m per year towards the progressive removal of crossings. Spending money to remove the level crossings in at least the urban area would likely be a far better use of taxpayers and ratepayers money than some of the dubious projects that were highlighted in my post yesterday.

Closing Sarawia St Level Crossing

Auckland Transport is looking to close the Sarawia St level crossing in Newmarket. It is perhaps the most pesky crossing on the network, not due to how many cars use the street but how many trains pass through it and combined with its proximity to the Newmarket junction, makes things really tricky from a train operational perspective. I’ve lost count of how many times I have had to wait on a train before that crossing and my understanding is that it is largely due to the timings on the crossing itself rather than the junction. Things will only get worse in the future as more services are put on as a result of electrification and that means more people are potentially impacted.

Part of the problem is that there is no other way to access Laxon Tce and Youngs Lane (where the Sarawia St Level crossing leads to) meaning it isn’t just a matter of simply closing the crossing. Auckland Transport say that a number of options have been looked at for how to deal with the problem including the following ones which were dismissed for various reasons:

  • Vehicle underpass – an underpass from Sarawia Street was considered previously by KiwiRail but dismissed due to construction and cost challenges compared to a bridge.
  • Over rail bridges – options for bridges from either Sarawia Street or Cowie Street were previously explored by KiwiRail in 2011, with the Sarawia Street bridge option dismissed due to gradient issues and the Cowie Street bridge being expensive and visually imposing on the environment.
  • Newmarket Park Roads -options for a road through and a road around the park have been explored by Auckland Transport. Both roads carry with them extremely high construction risks due to ground stability and involve loss of public amenity in Newmarket Park.

The option that is considered the best option is to create a road link though to Furneaux Way between two buildings at the southern end of Laxon Tce. There is already a pedestrian access way so this would involve widening it.

AT have looked a couple of different options for the connection with their preferred one being a 5.5m wide shared space.

This solution however will obviously put a few more cars onto Furneaux Way and the only problem with that is that the road is currently a private one with it being owned and maintained by the developments body corporate. As a result Auckland Transport is looking to take over the future maintenance of the road. All up it seems to be a reasonable solution but will obviously have big impacts for those local residents. More information about it is here including info on an open day next week.

It will be good to get one more level crossing off the network and I really wish we could get a few more done while we are at it. Even if AT could perhaps target to remove a couple each year it would at least be a way to start progress (I believe the next crossings to be removed aren’t scheduled for another few years).