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

Looking forward to seeing these at Britomart
Looking forward to seeing these at Britomart

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.

Electrification Funding

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.

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  1. ….looking forward to it being boringly commonplace. A great day for Auckland, and a credit to all those who worked so hard to get this done. The snowball of change is starting to gather real momentum.

  2. I’m excited by it and I don’t even live in Auckland. Looking forward to a trip next time I visit though.

    1. I saw at least three this morning. I was on the 10am EMU VIP train. We passed another EMU on the way out of the tunnel, and I also saw another one stabled (I think?) outside the tunnel. Must say I was very impressed with the ride quality! Looking forward to them coming out here to the Western Line, hoping the timeframe AT has announced is more conservative than it’ll actually be.

      1. Was talking to Penny Hulse, and she agreed* we should get at least weekend services on all lines with EMUs much sooner.

        *Agreed as in “she agrees we should”, not saying that she’s confirmed it. But it makes great sense, and should be possible quite a bit earlier than full electrification, shouldn’t it?

        1. The current plan is for all weekend services on all lines to be EMU’s from August 2014, although it’s unclear how Waitakere will be served on Saturdays, given that AT have assured residents their rail service will continue until 2016.

          Good to see the Rail Development Plan mentioned in this article, which of course includes trains to Kumeu by 2016. Let’s hope ARTA’s plan makes it to 100% complete, and that AT isn’t allowed to curtail the plan, like the government who appoints AT’s leadership wants!

        2. Plans change Geoff like the intentention to get electric services rolled out faster as now will be all done by mid to late 2015 instead of 2016. This was due to CAF opening a new production line and allowing contract to be finished sooner. ARTA probably rightly assumed patronage from Waitakere would actually increase but it hasn’t, sticking to an 8 year old plan in spite of reality isn’t a good way to run an organisation. Lastly all of the original appointments to the AT board have expired and were renewed by the Council. Council could have changed the make up if they wanted too. Mark Gilbert is a new director to replace one who voluntary left due to other commitments.

        3. Geoff, no point referring to an obsolete eight year old non-statutory document written by an organisation that no longer exists.

          If you want to see the current, statutory, consulted and formally adopted plan that Dr Levy is supposed to support then read the Regional Public Transport Plan. It will be current for a couple of years until the revise it.

      1. Just curious. Why do the sets require certification?

        When I purchase a new appliance and take it home the manufacturer has already guaranteed that it will work as advertised in this country, that it complies with all NZ regulations and that it has been constructed in accordance with all relevant NZ consumer laws. I realise, of course, that a new train is not just a new electrical gadget but still….

        1. “Why do the sets require certification?”

          These are multi-million dollar pieces of kit. And various train production runs the world over have experienced severe quality-control issues (Siemens ICEs for example). It is just good business practice to check them over closely. THEN agree CAF has handed them the right thing.

          Presumably testing, certification and training are all getting progressively sped up as everyone gets more familiar with things.

  3. If they are faster than the old trains, does that mean they will have to slow down to fit in with the old trains between Penrose and Britomart to keep with the existing timetable?

    1. No timetable changes yet and will likely be for that reason. Until more lines get EMU’s rolled out it’s hard to make too many changes.

    1. Norman: “And if we could make Labour sign up to the electrification contracts then it would be impossible for National to stop the project.”

      1st: Weren’t the Greens opposed to the convention center deal because the Sky City package was binding on future governments? Denise Roche called it “unconstitutional”.

      2nd: I expect that the contracts for Transmission Gully and Puhoi to Wellsford to be signed sometime before September. Because two can play at that game.

      1. There is a difference between politically impossible and legislatively impossible. I think cancelling the electrification would have been, politically, hugely damaging.

      2. Yes, contracts are often very difficult to walk back from. Decisions made by one government impinge on the next.

      1. I remember travelling on various suburban trains in different parts of Spain back in 2003 and thinking if only NZ had trains like this!

  4. A very great day indeed. And will be even a greater day tomorrow when the 5:46am Onehunga to Britomart service signals the start of revenue service with the EMUs.

    Now then to the next challenge ahead. It is not the CRL, it is not weekend services, it getting the electrification extended all the way from Papakura to Pukekohe sooner rather than later. For while the rest of us will get to enjoy the EMU’s by late 2015 the Pukekohe passengers will continue to use the ADL DMU fleet between Pukekohe and Papakura until the section is electrified. Also with the Wesley Special Housing Area going ahead (some 2000 houses) we might want to get Paerata Station up and ready as well – ahead of time so it is ready to go for the people to use (rather than drive).

  5. In 2006 the ARC/ARTA business case for electrification was finally complete but before releasing it to the media here in Auckland Mike Lee and his team took the document directly to Michael Cullen in Wellington. Why? To avoid the Finance Minister making critical comments in response to a half-arsed retelling of the message by the media it was though best to directly brief him in detail. Given how cautious the government was being this “belt and braces” approach was a wise precaution that has certainly paid off (if Labour had said no back then it is pretty clear that National would have felt safe in saying no as well). Well done to all who contributed to years of lobbying to get us to today.

    1. Thanks for the background Graeme, and I suspect you’re right: Personal touches matter, and in a small country such as New Zealand personal touches matter a lot. And to Cullen’s credit, not only did he (finally) come around to electrification, but he also bought back KiwiRail so that it could be put on an equal financial footing with state highways and thereby contribute to NZ’s economic development.

      Look forward to a similarly successful approach with the CRL ;).

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