Today marks the first time in Auckland that all train services on a normal weekday will be run by electric trains. While I’m sure there are bound to be more teething issues as a result, it represents a significant milestone in the progress towards a better and more balanced transport system for Auckland. However while I’m glad to see the back of the old diesels, without them we also wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. It’s clear that earlier investments in both the diesels and the network achieved enough patronage growth that they helped convince officials and politicians to agree to spend over $1 billion, to electrify the network and buy new trains. With that in mind, I thought I’d once again take a bit of a look at the history of the rail network and what led us to this point.

Up until recently, trains in Auckland were not that widely used, and could best be described as being in a fairly constant state of decay. That’s the result of a few things including:

  • Up until the mid-1950’s most of the population was covered by trams, trains only served outlying areas.
  • In 1930 the main train station was moved from where Britomart is now (but on the surface) to the now old Auckland Train station next to Vector Arena. That made trains an inconvenient mode for most.
  • Despite repeated attempts over many decades to improve rail, nothing ever got off the ground and no real investment was put into the system.
  • During the same time we put huge investment into the motorway network and making it easier to drive.

Due to the factors above – and likely others – patronage continued to decline. Usage of rail was so low that in the 1980’s serious consideration was put into ripping up the tracks alongside the southern motorway and turning them into more lanes. By the early 1990’s patronage was reached its lowest point, barely scraping above 1 million trips a year. However it was about this time that a turnaround started and it was all the result of one man and some amazing luck. You can read the full story here but the short version is:

He had been tasked with shutting the network down but after looking at the operation he worked out he was able to cut costs and start turning a profit and extend the contracts. At the same time Perth was just finishing electrifying their own rail network and had no use for their old diesel trains allowing most of them to be brought at scrap value for use in Auckland. The Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) started plying the tracks in 1992. Within a few years patronage had doubled to over 2 million trips per year – higher than it was for most of the 1980’s and late 1970’s.

A DMU (left) and SA set (right) at Britomart

Things really kicked up a gear in 2003 when Britomart opened, once again returning trains back to the city. The growth in patronage was too much for the DMU’s to handle and so from 2004 the first of the SA sets started arriving. These are the refurbished carriages – originally from the UK – that are hauled by freight locomotives and which became such a common sight on the rail network in Auckland. In total over 100 carriages were refurbished over a five year period.

Both the DMUs and SA sets represented a big step forward compared to what had existed before and growth continued as more services kept being added. In 2006 this was further boosted by the government agreeing on Project DART (Developing Auckland’s Rail Transport Network) which saw the double tracking of the Western Line as well as station upgrades such as Newmarket and New Lynn, the reopening of the Onehunga line and the building of a new line to Manukau. Impressively despite frequent and often massive disruption as a result of the major works being undertaken, patronage continued to rise.

In 2010 after delaying electrification to re-evaluate it and cancel a planned regional fuel tax that would have paid for the trains, the current government agreed to fund electrification and give the council a loan to buy the new trains. This meant that from 2011 onwards the rail network continued to be plagued by significant disruption however despite this patronage kept rising. The only exception to this was in 2012/13 when the after-effect of two significant events kicked in at the same time. One was the boost that came from the Rugby World Cup (~400,000 trips) and the second was a change in the way patronage was counted as a result of the introduction of HOP. However since then patronage has once again risen again – more than making up the lost ground.

The plan was to buy 38 trains and then separately buy some electric locomotives to haul the SA sets around for another decade or so however in 2011 the government agreed it would be better and cheaper over the long term to buy an extra 19 trains and run a single uniform fleet – plus the SA sets couldn’t run through the future CRL for safety reasons. All of this meant we’re getting a total fleet of 57 trains.

The first Electric Train (EMU) arrived in August 2013 and entered service at the end of April 2014. They then slowly started to be rolled out to Manukau line services in August before being rolled out to all services in December. This year we’ve already started to see electric trains on some Southern and Western line services. While the full roll out to all lines has only been completed today the impact of the new electric trains has been extraordinary. For example in the 12 months to the end of May patronage on the Eastern Line is up a staggering 43.7%. As I understand it, of the 57 trains we ordered, all but the last few are in the country with the final ones arriving in August.

EMUs at the Depot
Photo by Patrick Reynolds

The chart below shows the history of rail patronage over the time-frame above including some of the significant events mentioned. Of note is it includes the 2014/15 result (to the end of June) which AT has confirmed to me as 13.9 million over the year. That’s up almost 22% over the 11.4 million trips to the end of June 2014. That level of growth puts us well on track towards the target the government have set for an earlier start date for the next major rail project – the CRL. Current estimates see that figure being passed in around 2017/18.

Auckland Rail Patronage 1990-2015

While the diesel trains have definitely served a purpose and helped improve rail use in Auckland. In the last eight months or so they’ve been increasingly unreliable as maintenance on them was reduced. At the same time there have been bedding in issues with the new EMUs. With a single fleet now it should mean that those involved in delivering train services in Auckland – AT, CAF, Kiwirail and Transdev – should be able to focus on addressing just one set of issues. At the end of June we learned of their action plan for the next year for this.

EMU + Rail improvement action plan 1 - Jun - Sep

One of the most interesting aspects of the Auckland rail story is the links with Perth. Not only did we buy their old diesel trains but they’re often cited as a case study by officials thanks to the significant uptake in rail use thanks to electrification and new projects.  At the time they went electric their system carried around 10 million passengers which is not too far off what our network was carrying when we first started running electric trains. It is hoped that we’ll emulate some of the success they’ve had – which has also come from building significant new lines. Here’s how patronage on the two networks look.

Auckland vs Perth Patronage - 2015

I believe that in a few years-time that electrification, just like with Britomart, will be one those projects we look back on and wonder why it took us so many decades to do, why politicians from all sides refused to believe it could work. Lastly I was in Britomart yesterday and it really is wonderful how quiet the station is now that we don’t have rattly old diesel trains in it. Thank you to everyone who has helped get us to this point.

p.s. next we need to get electrification extended to Pukekohe for a fully all electric network.

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  1. Railway Magazine July and August 1947 said, “a new line, giving direct access to Auckland from the North, has been projected as part of a scheme for improving and electrifying the suburban services. The works will include a long tunnel under the city, and underground stations at convenient points.” A pity it’s taken 68 years to get the electrification and still no tunnel. Interesting to speculate how Auckland would have developed if it had all been done before the harbour bridge was built.

  2. it would be nice to know how many tons of diesel isn’t being burned anymore, literally under our noses. Must be much quieter and pleasant experience in Britomart at the moment. I would have liked to see a bigger focus on the environmental advantage of having all electric (supplied with mostly renewable) trains

    1. I have been told that 15 tonnes no longer need to be bought, I guess per annum.

      The improvement in air quality is obvious and wonderful. Those old trains were ghastly. The noise improvement is great too. Property proximate to the rail lines is now much more valuable (freight trains notwithstanding), and doublly so for property near stations.

      1. Hmm, 15 tonne of Diesel is about 17,000 litres of diesel (about 1100 litres per tonne), so thats under $20K to buy that much diesel (assuming AT/KR buys diesel sans many taxes and at a bulk rate say $1.20 a litre).

        I thought AT’s annual fuel bill for trains was way bigger than that e.g. $millions a year?

        Still regardless every tonne of diesel not burned is at least 3.0 tonnes fewer carbon credits we will need to offset by going electric*.

        *When the Government gets around to doing something about CO2 emissions from transport that is.

        1. That’s a lot of diesel fumes not being spewed into Auckland in general but specifically into downtown around Britomart. Already it is noticeable how there are less diesel fumes around the area despite increased numbers of buses.

    2. 2012 stats for diesel consumption: here or at least in the OIA request if you click through from that link. They were at about 9 or 10 million litres in 2012. We’ve increased services with the new trains – maybe call it 12 million now?
      The emissions content of diesel is 2.670 kg of CO2-equivalent per litre, so that’s 32 million tonnes of CO2 we’re not emitting anymore, each year. There are also emissions from the new trains of course, but those would be much, much lower.

      1. Yep thats a lot of carbon credits we don’t need to buy now or in the future.
        At the current price of around $7 a “NZU” thats about $224m worth of “carbon” credits AT would never need to find? Hmm we could a few more EMUs with the carbon credit savings one day right?

        As for emissions from the current electric trains, I’d think the CO2 equivalent “emissions” from the passengers on the electric trains would be way way higher than anything the CAF EMUs themselves would generate.

        Or was that what you were getting at 🙂 ?

        1. I asked AT. This is their reply

          “The Annual diesel consumption has been approximately 10 million litres per year.

          This will go down to less than a million litres a year with the diesel shuttles being used for the Papakura-Papatoetoe service.”

      2. Easy see just how completely positive a real carbon pricing regime would be. But also as we know diesel exhaust is a major carcinogen this is truely great for our city and nation. And anyone who has been on a bridge over the where the old trains are operating will know, they weren’t clean burners.

      3. I think you mean 32 million kilograms, or 32,000 tonnes, of CO2, rather than 32 million tonnes – that would be an awful lot!.

  3. With Onehunga service running three minutes earlier, lots of running passengers this morning and some left behind. Poor communication AT, new time table posters won’t reach the core commuters. Congrats though to our 7:33 train manager this morning hurrying up those he could and explaining to the train the timetable change

  4. First morning from Pukekohe. I figure we won’t have any issues making our connexion at Papakura in the morning; might in the evening. I arrive at the station in Pukekohe about 5AM for the 5:15AM train. The 5:15AM train leaves about 5:23AM. We get to Papakura. The train manager says he *thinks* the northbound train is on the platform across the stairway – but “if you hear my whistle, run back!” He turns out to be right.

    I trust these are teething problems – only. The evening connexion will be more annoying as the trains to Pukekohe only run every twenty minutes; missing the morning put us only 12 minutes late leaving Papakura.

    Still, better than Waitakere!


    1. Why on Earth would they put connecting trains on different platforms, when Papakura was specifically designed to have a same-platform connection? It’s supposed to be arrive on platform 3, walk along to where it becomes platform 4, then board the shuttle (and vice versa).

      Hopefully a mistake made on day 1 only, but let us know if it keeps happening.

    2. I live in Pukekohe too and used to get the train every day into Britomart, and home. The change in timetable and as you have said 20 min waits for connection on the way home is unpalatable, it adds time to a day’s journey that is already too long. So today I drove to Papakura and got the train from there. Much less convenient and annoying to have to drive 20mins and then struggle to park. I fear it will not just be me who takes this approach and thus patronage from Pukekohe decreases, and justification for electrification decreases. But what do we do?

      1. I think the best thing you can do is advocate (send an email) to your local (National) MP and Councillors to put pressure on the Minister for Transport (Simon Bridges) to fund passenger rail improvements from NLTF, especially electrification to Pukekohe. Hell, invite Simon Bridges to ride the train with you.

      2. Back in the late 70’s, they began running electric trains from Wellington to Paraparaumu, even though the wires ended at Paekakariki. The train would pull into Paekakariki, a diesel would be put on the front, and off it went. Coming the back, the diesel was taken off at Paekakariki, and the train would continue on under its own power once more.

        Kiwi ingenuity.

        1. They a similar thing in Europe and the UK quite a bit with regional trains. The front half of the train goes to one destination while the back half goes to another. Takes about 3 minutes. So yes a diesel could be waiting ready to go at Papakura. It’s probably one of those things that it might be better just to have 2 separate trains. Even better just extend the electric lines to Pukekohe and on to Frankton!

        2. Bruce – “a similar thing in Europe and the UK quite a bit with regional trains”: if by “a similar thing” you mean trains splitting en route, it does happen quite a bit in England, but only where both parts of the train are either diesel or electric MUs, not a mixture of the two; if you mean diesel haulage of EMUs, like English Electrics to Paraparaumu pre 1983 (and Ganz Mavags annually to Featherston for Toast Martinborough for a number of years), that has never happened regularly in the UK.

          Either way, British experience doesn’t have a lot of relevance for Pukekohe trains.

    1. yes, they should be faster. 10 minutes faster from Papakura to Britomart if AT got the dwell times down to respectable levels. 10 minutes is a CRL level of time saving across all lines just from an operational initiative. Would have thought this would be a “top strategic priority”?

      Oh that’s right! If it doesn’t involve pouring concrete and rebar no one’s interested!

  5. Does anyone know why capacity has been reduced on weekends? Until Saturday, weekends were a mix of 3-car and 6-car EMU’s. But from Sunday (the first day of the new operating plan) all weekend services arel now operated by 3-car EMU’s.

    Good to see three SA sets on Pukekohe runs today for the 500 daily punters there. Allocating not one, not two, but three diesel trains for bus-level patronage shows that AT have not forgotten that successful transit-orientated development requires vision for the future, rather than simply matching transport spending to existing demand.

    1. I assume 6 cars were only run on weekends for testing on familiarisation purposes. No need to have 6 cars running on weekends, unless there is special event.
      Also Pukekohe has more than 500 daily boardings. 13,000 in March 2014 divided by 20 gives 660, and assume has grown since then, unlike some other stations.

      1. 21 days, so 619, but that’s the busiest month of the year. But even with your 660, divided by the number of trains provided = bus load.

        The rail service is not justified by the current patronage numbers. It’s justified as an enabler of transport choice concurrent with development in order to ensure that that development is responsible, and not just an all out roads fest.

        Build it and they will come.

  6. I was in Perth when the first electric trains rolled out way back in 1992. They had built the new northern line right up the middle of the Mitchell Freeway. It was mainly because of this new line that rail patronage shot up, as people in the northern suburbs realised they can just catch the bus to the station or drive to the station and park there all day, and take the train into town. Unfortunately, I think what will really launch Auckland train patronage into the Perth-like orbit is the CRL, and then a new line to areas that are not currently served by rail – eg: North Shore, and one day, Pakuranga / Botany Downs.

      1. Totally agree. Pukekohe obviously must come first. 🙂 I can see many first home buyers heading that way in the next few years if the rail line is electrified.

  7. What’s happening to the SA carriages that have become redundant. Shame about Pukekohe not being electrified. It would surely have been cheaper to do it now while they were geared up to build the overhead construction, than it will be in a couple of years when inevitably it will be built.

    1. Shame a small majority of voters elected National into government the last 3 elections. This is the reason why so many good opportunities to develop rail have been wasted.

    2. The SA/SDs are sitting at Taumarunui, and will stay there until AT either a) manages to sell them all as a single lot, or b) changes its mind and accepts bids for less than the total fleet, or c) scraps them.

  8. Who knew that slower trains would increase patronage? I heard the next upgrade will be trains made in Bolivia that will take an extra 10 minutes on each route followed by an ugrade in 2050 to trains made in Greece that run on souvlaki and dont show up at all!

    1. Uh uh. Patronage has increased in spite of, not because of slower trains. If we had faster trains, patronage would increase so much that we would need extra tracks for the faster trains 🙂

      1. If we had faster trains people would have too much spare time on their hands instead of waiting around. No one would know what to do with themselves.There would be riots in the streets. The economy would collapse. They would start showing Shortland St from the beginning again. Will nobody think of the children?!?!

        I like the idea of those souvlaki powered trains though. That’s the sort of blue-sky, out-of-the-box, No 8 Wire, innovative thinking that made this country great. Now that this idea is on the radar we can start circling the wagons and get all hands on deck so that we can set the expectation moving forward and hit the ground running.

        1. Sorry but if you look at the graph above you will see the Rugby World cup caused patronage to stop growing and caused a mini slide. It only started increasing in 2013. The two main events that year were the marriage amendment bill and the return of marmite. I can’t see a link between marrage and trains so my guess is the constipatory effect of marmite allowed more people to use public transport.

        2. We should be punching above our weight and first in the world to electrify this slice of heaven.

    1. Indeed a great day.

      Hopefully sooner rather than later, although I think some of the issue is around level crossings, much may take some time to resolve.

  9. Really glad that some of these problems may be addressed.

    The trains were quieter and more comfortable their diesel counterparts but include problems such as over-sensitive electronic speed controls and longer “dwell” times at stations caused by the extra time it takes for passengers to open and shut their doors.

    That has cancelled savings from faster acceleration and braking, adding up to four minutes in scheduled running times on the western line, the final section of Auckland’s network to be electrified.

    A work programme developed by Auckland Transport and KiwiRail for the next 12 months includes provision for faster approaches to signals and stations, and consideration of automatic door controls.

  10. next would be to get higher platforms so that boarding is easier so we can have level boarding especially when trains reach “packed like sardines” in the future

  11. I’m not a frequent train user in Auckland but have done so last week and it really started to irritate me how you can’t pre-order the door opening like is common on Swiss trains, trams and buses. You have to stand there watching the button for it to light up and then press. Such a simple fix I don’t understand why it isn’t already in use?

    1. Yes, I agree. That “feature” is enormously irritating and must be such an easy software upgrade fix. You should be able to press the button whenever you want and once it is released by the train manager then it should open straight away. The current setup just adds delay and frustration.

  12. Oh, if only those SA/SD sets could come to Christchurch. I just wish that democracy would return to Christchurch, because the majority want a commuter rail service. But here in Brownleegrad our politicians won’t even consider it. This is a perfect opportunity to get some second hand trains. Congratulations to Auckland anyway.

    1. Keep agitating for democracy down there mate. It has to come back sooner or later. I guess 2017 is the likely latest when Comrade Brownlee et al get voted out finally.

  13. I live beside the railway line at Mt Albert, and not being able to hear the DCs as they accelerate past my place is great. Problem is, I don’t have time to get up from my chair and rush to the window to see the trains. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. I liked the DCs though, they made a “friendly” noise, sort of told you all was well with the world. Another group that will miss them is young mums, and some grandmums, with babies. I seems that the sound of the DCs sent the babies to sleep, and those living further away from the railway line would bring the babies down in their strollers and park them beside the line for their afternoon nap – I kid you not.

    1. I also quite like the sound of the DCs and DFTs taking off. Been listening to them for most of my life, so I guess my liking of them is just down to familiarity. No love lost for their fumes though, they can take those and never come back.

  14. Wonderful to ride the electric on the western line today. Trip seemed to take as long as the deisel, though. Hopefully this will improve. The trains are fast and quiet but the dwell time at the stations is too long. It wasn’t the doors, it was the TM spending an obligatory 15-20 seconds on the platform at each station. I think we’re too labour intensive.

    1. New Zealand’s (poor) productivity statistics tend to support your observation of the labour intensiveness of our operations. It would be great if the doors were operated by the drivers and the TMs focused on revenue protection and general minding of the train.

      1. Actually, the trains in Auckland and Wellington are less staff intensive than most international networks. Less people on trains perhaps, but a heck of a lot more on the ground in most countries.

        The TM’s on the platforms here are not causing delays. If you see them standing on the platform for 15-20 seconds, it’s because somewhere along the train there are still people boarding.

        Get rid of the passenger operated doors, and get rid of the time delays. This is the 21st century, they should be automated and instant.

        1. Clearly haven’t travelled that much.

          I do however agree with you re making the doors open instantly. This can still be the case with passenger operated doors. This is how it works in Melbourne.

          15-20 seconds standing around on the platform is insane. Total dwell time should be 30 seconds or less. We’re talking 3-6 car EMUs on lightly used (compared to overseas) stations. I could understand 1min dwell times if it was 10 car trains and stations with hundreds of people boarding each service.

        2. I think Auckland should keep the TMs, as they provide passengers with a feeling of safey and good to have them for customer service, assisting special needs passengers and keeping an eye on things BUT they should give the driver the job of opening an closing doors as this would be far more efficient.

        3. Brisbane has passenger operated doors and train managers, but their dwell times aren’t horrific. The difference? The TM is based in the rear cab and operates the doors from the drivers console, they aren’t wandering around the platform jangling their keys.

  15. Staff need to told to be less nice and stick to the timetables, whilst passing through Meadowbank this morning, when the train manager saw a girl running down the platform as the doors were closing he aborted the process and let her on.

    Added 45 seconds to the process. With peak time trains every 10 mins there is no need. She can get the next train

    I’ve been getting the 7:09 from Panmure for about a month, it has never been less than 7 minutes late. i strongly suspect it’s caused by staff not being incentivised to run on time. A minute here and there add up to cancelled trains later in the day.

    1. I agree. And that’s coming from someone who (unexpectedly) benefited from such generosity this morning, albeit in Brisbane.

      The timetable must come first. Hence why it’s sooooooooooo annoying that AT have not yet been able to sort out the dwell times on the EMUs. I honestly can’t believe that they’ve managed to spend $1 billion on new trains that are slower than the existing ones.

      It boggles the mind.

    2. Seems a bit ridiculous that I can’t get on the train because the doors won’t open when the train manager has their door still open, AND has time to wave ‘sorry’ to me before getting on the train to close their door. I was a little bit early for my train, but the trains were running 10-15 minutes late.

      1. Rereleasing, checking then closing the doors again would add at least 30 seconds to the already long dwell time. It’s harsh, but the onus really has to fall on the passenger to make sure they get themselves on the train, regardless of whether or not the service is on time. Trains should not be held up for the sake of one or two latecomers, it just isn’t fair to those already on board, or waiting at other stations.

  16. So 12 million litres with a specific gravity of say .9 (deisel floats on water) is 10.8 million kilo grams. So divide that by 1000 kg you get 10,800 tonnes. Mr John Polkinghome. So carbon Dioxide produced is 32,000 tonnes per annum if your molar conversion is correct. Not 32 million tonnes per annum.

  17. Farewell diesels. I started using the rail network when the DMUs started coming from Perth, so was fond of them, the ADKs in particular; they got the job done and were a good investment for what they cost and what they did to open up the rail service. Would be nice to see one saved. That said, in reality those memories should not have existed as the electrification is long overdue and the DMUs should not have been needed. However, more important is extending the electrification and trying to open up areas not yet served by rail to ensure we don’t have to keep thinking “why was this not done?” in the future.

    The electrics still have bugs, but hopefully these get worked out. As nice as the SA carriages may be, going for all-EMU rather than locos to haul SAs was the right move, as a standard fleet is much more flexible.

    Anyone know why the EMUs “hiss” at the platform? They seem to have bursts of hissing when at the platform, sounds like they’re dumping pneumatic pressure. Anyone know why?

    1. agree with regards to a full EMU fleet.

      Re opening up new areas to rail – the main area that needs to be opened up to rail is the city centre via the CRL. Then maybe the South-west line towards Mangere? I’d give up on the airport – at least for now, given what NZTA and AIAL have done to make the approach difficult it’s not worth the money.

      Re hissing – most EMUs do this as far as I know? At least I think they do in Brisbane. Suspect it’s to do with braking?

  18. I’m so old that I remember when the old trains were the new trains. The old old trains are those ones with steps and seats that could face forward or back.

    1. I remember when the old trains were the new trains, but I don’t remember the old/old trains. I do remember my old train catching on fire one day though.

  19. I’ve noticed that the time it’s taking the six car sets to get moving from Newmarket when the driver has to change ends. It has gone from an average of three minutes to at least 4 minutes on average. I hope they can address this because it is causing issues at Newmarket and Britomart

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