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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.