Next Monday will be a historic day for transport in Auckland as for the first time the city will have electric trains carrying fare paying passengers. Electrifying the rail network is something that has been talked about for 90 years, mostly in conjunction with a version of the City Rail Link. While Britomart was undoubtedly a turning point for rail in Auckland it wouldn’t have been possible without some key events and a whole pile of luck that occurred just over a decade earlier, without which it is unlikely we would have a rail system today. One man was at the centre of it all and this is the story of how he saved rail in Auckland.

The story starts in the late 80’s where the Auckland rail network is in serious decline. The trains were being run under the name of City Line which was part of NZ Rail Ltd and also ran a number of bus services.

Unlike Wellington which had just fairly new electric trains, the trains running on the Auckland network were decrepit and consisted of former long distance carriages that had been converted for suburban use. They were originally built in 1936 and had steel frames but the bodies were made from wood. They were also hard to access, requiring customers to climb up into the trains from what were basically oversized kerbs that masqueraded as station platforms. The video below shows what these trains looked like and there are more linked to here. Also note: to change ends there was no driving cab like today, the locomotive had to be uncoupled and moved to the other end of the train at a station with a passing loop.

At the time Auckland had also seen numerous grand plans for new public transport networks but none ever saw the political support needed to actually implement them. At the time the latest idea was convert the western line to light rail using a tram train from Henderson then send it via a tunnel under K Rd before running down the surface of Queen St. The problem was the idea couldn’t get political support. The City Council didn’t want trams on Queen St and the regional council saw it as competition to the Yellow Bus Company which they owned 90% of. That left Auckland with its near derelict trains and not much hope for the future.

It’s now the early 90’s and enter Raymond Siddalls. With a year to go before the regional council took over the contracting of services he was in charge running the suburban fleet. His bosses had also tasked him with shutting the Auckland network down. With an aging fleet, falling patronage and little political support (both locally or nationally) no one thought it could be made to work. After looking at the operations Raymond was surprised to find that with with a restructure he was be able to cut down the costs and actually have the company start making a profit on the gross contracts it held.

The critical time came in 1991 when a decision needed to be made on how to move forward. New legislation controlling how public transport services would operate was coming into effect and basically changed everything. No longer could PT be treated as a social service and the focus was on making PT stand up commercially. The legislation also didn’t allow for any distinction between rail and bus services which meant bus companies could tender for rail routes. Note: this legislation is still in effect today and has had a significant negative effect on the planning and provision of PT for over two decades. The new PTOM legislation should address most (but not all) of the issues it caused.

With the network actually making a profit the operation was kept going and the operating company tendered for the 120 services a day that they were already running (today there are something like 365 services per day). One problem though was each service had to take on the full cost of running the network. They subsequently were able to re-tender for the services as a combined timetable which allowed the costs to be shared across all services.

The councils started to get on board and the company was awarded the contract in the South for three years while in the west it was for four years. They were then able to successfully argue that with a 4 year contract on the entire network there was a chance to look at new rolling stock which would boost and the councils agreed to this. The contract was due to start in June 1992.

Around this time it just so happened that one staff member was about to go to Perth to attend a wedding. Perth was just about to finish electrifying their rail network and so the staff member was asked to drop in to find out what they were planning to do with their unneeded DMU’s (Diesel Multiple Units – the ones that don’t have a locomotive).

It turns out there were no plans for them and so subsequently Raymond flew over to inspect and value the trains. He made a call that there were no other buyers interested in them and so put in an offer for them at scrap value. All up he was aiming for 20 trains and his hunch about no other buyers being interested paid off, managing to secure 19 of them.

One of the ADLs as they looked before being refurbished in the mid 2000’s

With a new fleet of trains seemingly secured it wasn’t the end of the problems though. Perth is flat and the steepest track has a grade of 1:200 while Auckland is far from flat with trains needing to be able to handle grades of 1:36. This meant many needed their engines and transmissions overhauled to be able to handle the Auckland conditions. They also wanted to refurbish the trains by re-upholstering the seats and replacing the floor coverings. Lastly they had to raise the platform heights around the network so that people could actually get on to the trains. To make things even more difficult in Auckland the rail unions were striking trying to reopen the workshops and re-employ some of the staff who had been laid off by the earlier rail restructuring.

To fund the overhaul, refurbishment and raise the platform heights it was determined that the only way they could make it viable would be if the rail contract was extended to 10 years. Due to the confirmed availability of rolling stock this was considered a good deal. As such the regional council ended up voting unanimously to support the proposal with one person abstaining – the abstention was from a light rail advocate.

In another stroke of luck all of this happened just before the rail network was privatised, something that could have put the whole idea in jeopardy.

At around the time the DMU’s were introduced patronage on the rail network reached its lowest point ever of just over 1 million trips per year. Within a couple of years after their introduction, the DMU’s were responsible for a reverse in the in the patronage decline that had been witnessed over the previous decades. It then continued to grow and reached about 2.5 million trips before Britomart was opened. It was also that growth that helped give the political courage needed to get Britomart built.

Historic Rail network patronage

Raymond also happened to table the idea of Britomart all the way back in 1990 and he was instrumental in ensuring that a corridor was left to the site of Britomart as the initial plan had been to sell off the old rail yard land entirely.

Put simply without the actions that Raymond took we almost certainly would not have a rail network today that is about to served by modern electric trains. He has been a hero to PT in Auckland that I think the city should be eternally thankful for. Thanks Raymond.

Note: Thanks to Raymond for agreeing to share his memories with us. Also thanks to Auckland Transport (where Raymond currently works) for allowing us to talk to him.

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  1. Awesome history lesson. Scary to play “what if” scenarios if a whole pile of things hadn’t worked out in the early 1990s.

  2. I remember travelling on these early trains, riding in to the old downtown station – a world away from where we will be in just a few weeks with a new electric network. How much things can change in two decades…

    Thanks Raymond. And thanks to the then ARC for backing his ideas and vision.

  3. I was working at Schofields in Newmarket when they started running and we could see the tracks from our smoko room. Compared to what we had, they looked like something out of the future.

  4. Great story – and many thanks to Raymond and those who supported him.

    Also – that last graph is awesome. When compared to the zero axis, the growth looks as massive as it really is.Growth of x 5 the starting number over 10 years!

    1. It’s noteworthy also that the improvements to the network were made first, with the reasonable expectation that the upgrade would lead to an increase in patronage. This is in stark contrast to the current demand that the CRL cannot be built unless passenger numbers rise to a predetermined trigger point.

      This graph should be made into wallpaper and plastered round the top floor of the Beehive. Perhaps then the visionless drones who live there could be made to see the blindingly obvious.

    1. Something commemorative at Britomart would seem to be in order for this visionary man. Thanks Matt for making this story more widely known.

        1. Can we at least name a train after him? Not sure if New Zealand has a history of naming units but would be a nice touch. Even better would be naming it when you open one of the CRL stations at the same time

        2. Some of the ARTA DC locos were (still are?) named after the women involved in their introduction to Auckland, so there’s certainly a precedent.

  5. I have come to know Raymond in recent times, via several service development projects. It is a privilege and a pleasure working with a person who is so focused on doing things right for rail in Auckland and who is determined to cut through the proverbial to get things done. We owe him a huge debt not just for saving Auckland’s rail network but for his continuing foresight and tenacity.

    He has been around a long time now but there is still a lot left in the man, so I hope that there is an opportunity for him to once more take a leading role in Auckland’s rail future.

    For Raymond, “Good is the enemy of great because good becomes good enough”.

    1. “For Raymond, “Good is the enemy of great because good becomes good enough”.

      Interesting slant – arguably, the trains he ensured got bought and the changes in service that were initially made barely even rose to the level of “good enough”. They were crap if you compared them to modern standards, or even avaerage other cities at the time. I argue that in fact he knew very well about the power of “good enough – for now”

      1. Except “good enough” is almost always equivalent to “what we have now”. Better is better, and we get from “good enough” to “great” in steps.

        1. We can all thank Mr Siddalls for putting Auckland rail on the stepped path to greatness.

  6. Those DMUs that Raymond bought were also key to the renaissance of Auckland Metro Rail – if those had turned out to be the lemons they could have (and probably, by all rights, should have) been, that would have been even more of a death knell, providing the best excuse to can all Auckland rail at the same time.

    Luckily for us, those old DMUs have done sterling service, and for way longer than anyone thought whether that be Raymond, the original train builders or the guys in Perth who sold them off for scrap.

    Yes, they did let folks down on the Rugby World Cup opening nights fiasco due to air con that doesn’t work well when the trains are stationary but thats not their fault.

    So Raymond, thanks a heap for your efforts the last 25+ years and there is proof in this story (if any is needed), that sometimes you do need a public body in charge of things, that can take truly long term view to get this stuff done especially when dealing with narrow minded politicians at all levels – as it takes far longer than any one assumes it would,

    Private enterprise would have thrown in the towel way on Auckland Rail well before now without a doubt.

    So thanks a bunch Raymond, I truly hope you personally there on the platform to see the CRL open sooner than expected due to overwhelming demand for rail in Auckland.
    And can then truly say to all those nay-saying politicians crowding round for their slice of the photo opportunities – “see we told you so – you build the services and the public will use them”.

  7. ” the regional council saw it as competition to the Yellow Bus Company which they owned 90% of”

    Geez, that’s pathetic. Makes me wonder whether barring regional councils from owning their own PT providers wasn’t a good thing. They wanted to shut down perfectly good infrastructure, which – as Wellington had shown – could be the backbone of a system, just so they could make more money?!?

    I am amazed that in only 10 years that culture got turned around to the Mike Lee era which brought us to the “integrated PT network” stage.

    1. Not sure if that is quite fair. It was probably more a case of “we don’t want to sink capital we don’t have into something that creates a need for more ongoing operating subsidy… only to draw paying customers away from our existing subsidised transit service that we already lose money on”. More a symptom of the legislative arrangements and the competitive Zeitgeist at the time. An integrated network was probably a fantasyland idea back then.

      1. “An integrated network was probably a fantasyland idea back then.”

        No there were calls for it back then, but the argument was who would manage it and pay for its subsidies – recall that City Line trains were privately owned/listed “RailCorp” (or whatever they called themselves back them) [before Toll bought it out], and ARC ran the Yellow buses, so you have two arms of government competing for subsidies, fine while the Labour Gov’t was in power but once National got in in 1990 and Ruth Richardson got her hands on the finances and wrung them dry then all bets were off.

        As a result we lost an entire decade then and the 90’s really became the lost decade for PT in Auckland, and better forgotten all round except as a lesson in how not to manage PT.

        And while its still in my memory:

        I did use the old city Line trains in the early ’90s – there was one (of the seemingly many at that time) bus drivers strikes on, no buses, so I had to either walk to work or get a train.
        I lived in Orakei then so walked down the hill to Orakei Station, waited and waited and got a train after about 45 minutes of waiting, then had a long walk to anywhere from Beach Road station.
        Only did that twice. Train was not very full – even during a bus strike. But the walk from the old Station was the real time waster.

        Experience wasn’t totally wasted though, one day the other chap on the platform was a former Maori Battalion soldier, in full uniform, who told me as we talked how he used his free trips on the trains (as a returned serviceman) to go to the RSA in town every day to see his old mates and come home about 4:30pm on the train. Been doing this daily trip for years he said. Also told me he enjoyed every minute of his WWII experience, and said he and his mates really joined up to see the world not knowing what to expect – he said himself, he was a young boy from the back blocks who’d never get to see the world any other way so he and his mates all took the chance to join up as soon as it came.

        So rail service in the 90’s wasn’t all bad.

  8. While our rail network is far better than it was back in the 1980s, it’s interesting to note that the locomotive in the video is still on cubbies today (or rather it was, until it fell over).

  9. You might want to show the graph on log scale. The recent patronage dip is basically your entire 1991 patronage lost in a ‘crook’ year of disruption due to works etc.

    As for naming, Robert Risson was instrumental as a bureaucrat in saving Melbourne’s tramways. He has had an interchange named after him. Such would sound fitting in this case, provided your pollies allow it, some get very insecure at the sight of bureaucrats being commemorated.

  10. I am not sure you can claim the DMU’s lifted patronage much. The recession that hit followed by the recovery is probably the major factor in the dip. I used to ride the old trains daily up until 1990 when I shifted to Takapuna. Yes they were old but the many had big comfortable leather chairs that made you feel like someone important. And 15 minutes from Ellerslie to the old station was a huge gain over the 45 minutes by car some mornings. Best of all the conductor only walked through every other day so half the time the trip was free!

    1. It was absolutely due to the DMUs, and the improved service levels they allowed. If it were due to the recession then we would have seen the same pattern on the buses, but bus patronage continued to decline through to 1996 then stayed flat for some years after.

      1. Well your opinion is not supported by the graph above. It shows a dip that pretty much matches the economic cycle with a plateau from 1996 to 2002. It looks like the old trains carried just under 2million per year and the DMU’s just over 2million or in practical terms an extra 500 per day- that was not a game changer.

        1. Correct, because the graph above only shows train patronage. In the three years after the DMUs were introduced rail patronage doubled. In the same three years bus patronage continued to drop. If train patronage had followed the pattern of the remainder of the public transport system it would have been sitting at around half a million by 1996, not four times that.

          This is academic anyway, as the intent at the time was to shut down the suburban railway entirely. If it hadn’t been for Raymond and his DMU scheme the annual rail patronage from 1995 onwards would have been precisely zero.

        1. Ok here we are with some figures. Have indexed bus and rail patronage to 1988 which is when you said GDP peaked. Shows rail rose much faster than bus to 1996 then carried on at a similar rate.

        2. Yes but the co-movement or otherwise of buses doesn’t prove DMU’s saved Auckland, go back and look at the plateau and you will see it is around 200,000 per year more (ceteris paribus). Buses as the shit option were probably affected more by the huge increases in parking that occurred throughout the period and maybe even a decline in higher paid jobs in the CBD but I dont have data to support that last claim. As I remember it parking increased and layoffs resulted in people who would not have driven a car in the boom being able to get a parking space. That was the biggest effect on buses. But all that is a red herring DMU’s lifted the patronage by around 200000 pa. that is FA! And saying that saved Auckland is a hell of a long bow.

        3. Ahh, it’s how rail was saved, not how Auckland was saved!

          Like the title says, the DMUs saved rail in Auckland. Undeniable, because until Mr Siddalls arranged the DMU scheme the plan was to shut down suburban passenger rail entirely. That is precisely how “Rail was saved in Auckland”.

        4. Yes silly me. I misread the headline. Lucky they went to DMUs when they did or some numpty at Historic places might have protected the old trains then we would have been stuck with them!

        5. Rail saving Auckland might yet happen, but it will be a while (after the CRL) before we can make that claim.

          Happened in Melbourne, turned their region around based on massive growth in CBD employment, residential and retail, all of which came from equally massive growth in rail patronage and almost none from private transport.

    2. I agree with Nick on this with the DMUs in place you could then essentially go from 120 services a day with the Diesel loco hauled trains to easily double that using the locos and the DMUs – remember we got 19 DMUs for essentually the shipping cost and some refurb work when they got here. Those 19 DMUs alone meant service levels could improve dramatically. (And as I recall I think they got a lot of spares thrown in as well too?)

      And has been pointed out below, the fact you don’t need to turn the DMU (loco) round to make the return trip meant quite a saving in time so has further time savings on routes.
      (A related question how did Newmarket work before with Western bound trains – did they turn the loco round there too or run it backwards to/from the old Beach Road station, the the proper way out west or did they drive it in to Newmarket, then back out down towards the tunnel to go west?)

      And yep, bus services tanked big time in the 90’s as the ARC refused to up the subsidies on the newly privatised buses as those operators wanted so the bus operators responded by cutting services – mostly evening and weekend services. So that probably helped the rail patronage too, but the DMUs where a big step up with what went before thats for sure.

      And then when they bought those old BR train carriages, regauged them and made the SA sets from them that further enhanced services.

      1. I would assume the did it the same way they did until Newmarket was remodelled, i.e. forward to Newmarket, then the trains reversed backwards towards the tunnels on a siding and then were able to turn right and head out West forward again. I was on a few trains that made that manoeuvre, the system felt like something from the dark ages, and I guess it was.

      2. There was a shunt back at Newmarket and you can still see the formation between the Warehouse car park and the current track. I can recall (from 1970) that the Western Line train would come up from Auckland Railway Station into Newmarket; then the guard would stand at the rear of the set (with a flag?) and guide the reversing train up the shunt back. Can’t recall how it operated on the down line for the simple reason that I never used it.

        1. Loco-hauled Western line (only it wasn’t called that then) trains in both directions reversed twice, at Newmarket platform and in the reversing siding that ended near Sarawia St. From memory, after DMUs were introduced outbound services tended to reverse twice, inbound services just once, in the western platform at Newmarket.

      3. my memory of the western trains in the peak was they made passengers change at Newmarket which sometimes meant they made the southern trains wait until the western one got there. It was annoying to make great time into Newmarket and then be sitting there

  11. In the days of the early loco hauled sets not only did the locos have to be placed on the other end of the train at the end of each run it had to be turned on the turntable so that the short end continued to lead. One could not concieve of a more inefficient way to run a service.

    1. In the early days the locos had two-man crews and could travel long hood leading, so no turning was required. It was only when single manning was introduced in the late 80s that locos needed to be turned, and that was when the turntable beside Gladstone Rd was installed, now to become the centre of the National Railway Museum in Christchurch.

    1. Sorry, but it is already the Commemorative Robbie Line. The statue already stands ready in Aotea Square.

      We can name the Airport Line or something like it after Raymond 😉

  12. “The trains were being run under the name of City Line which was part of NZ Rail Ltd and also ran a number of bus services” – not quite.

    The CityLine brand was the NZ Railways Corporation’s, which also ran the buses under that brand. When NZ Rail Ltd was hived off NZRC in 1991 it took the trains, rebranded CityRail, leaving the buses with NZRC to be sold off. NZRL was privatised in 1993 and renamed Tranz Rail in 1995, when CityRail became TranzMetro.

  13. Perhaps with Jones gone, the chances of a sensible pre-election hook-up between Labour and Green may increase. He hated the Greens and to me was a liability for Labout. This is in reply to Goeff Houtman, in case it posts itself somewhere random).

    1. It certainly does improve the chances of a hookup between the Greens and Labour which in turn makes it almost certain National will win. Pity really, I had been thinking about going back to Labour but maybe next time.

  14. Awesome post. Geez, how yuck did the old trains look! Looking forward to next week. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas….

  15. The old red carriages did have one good feature for cyclists – they had hooks in the guard’s compartment at the end of the train for hanging your bike on. Then you could go and sit down and not have to worry about your bike falling over. Getting up and down the steps and through the narrow doorways was not so easy though.

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