There was huge transport disruption this morning for train users after Britomart was closed following a tsunami warning. I wanted to quickly share a few thoughts I’ve had about the incident.

I want to start by making clear that I’m not criticising the decision to close Britomart. I’m sure it was done based on someone following a pre-defined safety process. Whether that process needs to be reassessed I’ll leave up to others to discuss/assess.

What the incident really highlighted to me was how differently we treat different modes. For example, if the incident was considered serious enough to close Britomart then why weren’t low lying roads also closed? Roads like Tamaki Dr and SH1 either side of the Harbour Bridge are only barely above sea level at high tides while the Victoria Park Tunnel is below that. A tsunami hitting Auckland, and especially during the morning peak, would be devastating for people in vehicles on those roads and yet it appears authorities seem consider that perfectly acceptable. Surely we should treat all of transport the same.

I guess it many ways this mirrors how we deal with transport in general. Even seemingly minor incidents on the rail network get thoroughly investigated by independent bodies and often result in policy and procedure changes. There are also systems in place (such as the ECTS signalling system) that are designed to do as much as possible to actively prevent human error issues from occurring. Yet on the roads we seem to accept that every year over 300 people will die on our roads and in transport assessments, often safety is weighted up against travel time savings.

The other main thought about this morning was once again the terrible communications from Auckland Transport. The first I heard about any issues via a text message from AT at 7:07 claiming there was a track fault. At 7:20 another text claimed it was an emergency services incident (which usually is used to mean that someone has been hit by a train. It wasn’t until 7:57 that a third text said there was a Civil Defence Warning.

But even that was good compared to other forms of communication AT have at their disposal. I’m told messages at train stations were severely lacking, the real time boards weren’t working, exactly at the times you need them the most. On social media their messages on twitter were equally pointless and their finally existent Facebook page was completely silent. After so many years of experiencing this kind of crap when things go wrong it still amazes me that it still happens.

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  1. The first I heard about it was on the train from Papakura scheduled to arrive at 6:22AM. It is a double train and the manager was in the back end, where I was. The train stopped in the tunnel for longer than usual – maybe two minutes. Then it moved about 10 metres and stopped. Waited, then moved a few metres and stopped. Did this two or three times. The manager tried to call the driver on his RT but no answer. Suddenly the driver came running into our rear train (having, presumably, got out of the cab in the tunnel and got back into the rear section). As he ran by the manager asked what the problem was. “Tsunami warning!” – and he disappeared into the cab. We eventually got into Newmarket where I worked out how to find a bus down Symonds Street. It was good that a guy in the Newmarket station was handing out papers about buses and so forth.

    All seems ok now. I thought they did the whole thing very well. I had visions of our train in the tunnel suddenly being submerged in water and wondering how long the air would last 🙂


      1. Platforms were full at the moment the call was made and the priority became to clear the underground cavern. Obviously in hindsight that didn’t play out for the best.

  2. Absolute mess in terms of communication. Hopefully the release of the new comms system allegedly rolling out this month will improve things.

    In regards to Britomart closing, what a fail, the cival deffense warning came very early on morning (around 4~5am) and britomart was operating per usual until about 7.

    Also train would probably be one of the best ways to get out of the city in an emergency so why close it unless it’s actually starting to flood.

    Agree with your sentiments on rail vs road safety, why are we so extreme with the rail mode when it’s the road mode that is the most dangerous and causes the most fatalities.

    1. Yes, I wasn’t too happy to be pushed out of the train and onto road-based transport to get to work. I felt more vulnerable being on the roads. No-one was saying let’s all stay home for a few hours until we see if we’re safe, we all still had to get to work.

      Also there was no rail bus replacement, rail personnel were simply telling people to go and use the local bus services.

      1. You should’ve seen Tokyo after the 2011 quake in Japan. The trains had to stop and the lines that were running were very crowded and no matter what people had to get to work and because of that the only option was car which created one of the worst jams in a long time. Those who walked had to walk as long as 5 hours

          1. Actually it wasn’t…they had to close it though because if you recall Japan is powered by nuclear and because they supply power to Tokyo that was one main reason they had to cut the operations to some lines and others had limited trains, secondly the earthquake was super powerful that the 9.0 (correct me please) was felt all the way in Tokyo as probably a 7.5 (wild guess). Should the earthquake that occurred had been stronger then most of the eastern line would probably had been wiped out with a tsunami and being train lines they would need to make sure either way the earthquake had not affected it. At least roads in my opinion if there was a tsunami threat it would be easier for people to ditch the car and run for the hills, the train there would probably too many problems considering some of our responses are developing countries in nature

  3. AT did send a tweet out at 6:40am saying to expect delays etc to train services due to Tsunami warning, but it didn’t say anything about Britomart.

  4. I would bet the person who decided to close the Newmarket rail line after they had 20cm waves at the East Cape was English. Surely only someone with a British Rail background would be such a plonker.

          1. 30 points to the know-it-all who actually understands why those things cause delays and what happens when it goes wrong.

          2. When I lived in London the IRA would ring in with warnings at two stations and the rail managers would close everything down, every station, the tube, network south east, everything. It caused so much disruption that of course they would regularly ring in with warnings. If you ever want to see a petty tyrant in action just look to any English rail manager.

    1. Newmarket line was only closed because the only things it leads to – Britomart and the eastern line – were closed. No point in sending full trains into a dead end.

    2. “I would bet the person who decided to close the Newmarket rail line after they had 20cm waves at the East Cape was English.”

      Bill English? Fits the description…?

  5. You do have to wonder, yet again, why AT doesn’t have a position comparable to Transport for London’s Managing Director for Customers, Communication and Technology. It’s a position with clout and it’s about being able to look at things critically and being able to act on it. A marked contrast to those who perform similar functions here.

  6. So Britomart was closed but the ferry terminal remained open?

    This I can only assume because I received no texts about ferry services being cancelled, but I didn’t get to see for myself because I’d already decided to take the bus this morning.

  7. That’s priceless. Close the train but leave the roads and ferries open. Last time a major tsunami threat occurred we had to evacuate all vessels from the harbour to safe water, which is 20m depth of open water on the outer harbour limits? So one rule created by a bunch of idiots putting people’s lives in danger.

  8. You are right about the overall safety approach on the railway. Possibly because this is a workplace run by one company and as such any accident is their responsibility to report on, and make improvements in safety. Meanwhile it seems a logging truck rolls over every week in Northland and the response there is to put up a few posters asking drivers to take corners more slowly. There’s a definite double standard here

    1. rails focus on safety is imo conterproductive for society.

      ‘zero harm’ (kiwirails current safety buzzword) places extra cost on the business which is then passed onto the customer resulting in a modal shift to less safe modes.

      shunting some private sidings for example was deemed dangerous so the sidings were closed and that very freight would now go by truck on roads. hardly a safer outcome for society in general.

      1. Kiwi rail has the right attitude in not wanting to kill its employees. Trucking firms, the police and NZTA need to have the same collective approach to alternative freight modes.

        1. Damn right. Railways used to be an extraordinarily dangerous way of making a living. There are still a few old shunters with missing body parts who can remember mates who are no longer with us. The good old days were actually a bit shit.

  9. It seems from your link that the text service is not even operating properly at the moment. I have been registered for years, but all text stopped earlier this year. I just assumed the network was sweet these days, but it seems even the most basic communications systems are not working any more….

    Just feeling smug that I was Friding today….

    1. Yes but any water level that’s going to reach overhead wires is going to have totally destroyed all coastal rods first, like Tamaki Drive, so that risk is considered likely surely all roads and coastal properties must also be evacuated too, no?

      Yes so it seems rail safety plans were written by the same bunch of bedwetters who make our new fast trains dribble around the network at crawling pace…?

      While roading engineers routine build roads with much faster design speeds than is legal or safe..? Road vehicles really are officially sanctioned killers.

      An aside: I think this state of affairs is actually coming to an end, Automated Vehicles will have liable organisations behind them like railways and airlines, that can be pursued for fault, so I think this will eventually enforce greater safety standards on the roads. But we shouldn’t have to wait for this situation: Vision Zero now.

      1. Road vehicles officially sanctioned killers? I’ve been away two weeks and you are still writing emotive rubbish about cars and then you expect to be taken seriously on other matters. Its time to stop sounding so irrational Patrick.

          1. Road transport is only as dangerous as it is due to the small ratio of professional drivers on the roads while other modes have highly trained professional drivers.

          2. I dont think that is the only reason, but it is a part of it. But yes, we accept lower standards from operators on the roads – we accept safety risks that regularly manifests as death and injury.

        1. Well we can look at precedents right? Suppose someone is sending a text while driving (*), and unfortunately while doing so his car veers off, mounts the kerb and kills someone. Then what’s next? Is he’s going to be charged with manslaughter due to negligence (or whatever the law calls that over here)? Or is he just going to get away with maybe a warning (plus some whining about “boo hoo now he has to live with this”)?

          If that second outcome is more likely then yes, cars are sanctioned killers.

          (*) for clarity, that’s a BAD idea. Just don’t do it.

      2. Well, there is the MINOR fact that Britomart is already UNDERWATER… Not all that hard to reach the lines then since you only have to overtop the protection temporarily to have a significant problem.

      3. “…written by the same bunch of bedwetters who make…” classy comment Patrick. I would guess that some of those people you are referring to frequent this blog.

  10. Yes, I can only think that it was decided re Britomart (if not incompetence) would be based on high density/death potential against a smallish risk. Ferries probably no problem if just a surge of water. Cars, oh well only a few on the motorway etc compared to our great high capacity Britomart at peak. Earlier on perhaps not enough in there to trigger such fatality to risk ratio?….or they couldn’t make up their minds quick enough.

  11. It is not the first time Britomart has been closed due to a Tsunami warning. Consider this, if water is going over Tamaki drive at, say only 20cms, but continuous flow, the effects on Britomart(accommodating the fact Britomart is under sea level.) would or could be disasterous, right up to ground level.

      1. Matt at the speed traffic generally flows through the VPT running against peak and the lights and gates that can close it quickly the danger would be small. Britomart with the potential to have many thousand of people at any time (some closed inside trains) with relatively small areas to get up to higher levels is by far a greater danger.

        1. You really think that if VPT started to become inundated they could just clear the traffic? I would imagine the St Mary’s Bay motorway wouldn’t be moving much in such a scenario.

          1. Remember we are talking 30 centimeters of water on the road flowing to the lowest point and the traffic would be move at a relatively high speed given it is flowing opposite peak flow and any occupants of the (mainly single occupant as is often quoted by PT advocates) vehicles still in there If/When water flowed in (approaching traffic would be stopped by the signals and barriers) would be able to easier evacuate on foot back the way they came easier and far quicker than the thousands that would be going up the stairs in Britomart (sea level is quite away above the floor level of the mid level in Britomart).

          2. Funny how people are trying to rationalise the discrepancy like there was actually some risk based decision behind it taking into account potential impacts etc. Of course that’s not what happened. It’s just our culture – closing motorways and inconveniencing drivers is a sacred cow that can’t be contemplated. Closing PT networks and inconveniencing users is no problem.

          3. Nick the motorways are under full control of NZTA while the rail network (Kiwirail) was closed long before Britomart (AT) and the network was then reopened before AT could reopen Britomart having trains being directed to The Strand then ending up in Britomart.

          4. If you were doing a risk analysis on this I think you would assume 30cm of surface water (number from where?) would stop traffic. It’s certainly not going to continue on at 50kph!

          5. The 30cm figure has been knocked around by various sources most of the day, in the end the rail network is under control of Kiwirail who are big on safety while the motorway is under control of NZTA who is not.

          6. When does VPT ever have thousands in it? hundreds at best. Meanwhile Britomart actually does have thousands in it at many given moments during the morning peak.

          7. 30cm was a figure measured by a sea swell gauge. That could easily translate to a much bigger wave in the shallows of a harbour and massive volumes of water.

    1. They almost need to have some sort of emergency door system that can seal up the entrance to Britomart to prevent flooding in the event of a tsunami (possibly even a king tide+cyclone too).

  12. Seems absurd given the location of the Earthquake.

    Coromandel Peninsula would bear the brunt of any Tsunami coming from that direction. Auckland’s harbour would be subject to minor disruption at best.

    1. Tsunami waves have a very long wavelength, so will refract as they interact with the bottom even at depth, meaning they will easily ‘turn’ into the Hauraki Gulf. Next time you fly south from Auckland have a look at how far the waves off Kawhia refract around Albatross Point.

      1. Yes they refract but not very well. The impact of even a large earthquake located on the East Coast is never going to amount to a great deal in Auckland. The impact of a quake that causes 200mm waves that far away is never going to matter here. What it does prove is that everybody should own a car even, if they don’t commute by car, as in a natural disaster some twit will close the rail system.

        1. Tsunami waves also often amplify in harbours, for example in the 1960 Chilean earthquake, the biggest waves in NZ were in the Lyttelton, even though it is on the opposite side of Bank Peninsula from where the waves arrived from.

          A 7.1 earthquake at sea can generate a considerably larger tsunami than 200mm, certainly one that even with the Coromandel in the way would end up over the port if it arrived at high tide, which it was this morning.

          The way they went about the closure appears to be completely random and farcical though.

    2. You are right Matthew and add the fact these things travel around 800km/h under the sea and any Tsunami would have passed by 5am or 2 hours before the AT text.

      1. Depends on the water depth, would likely have been much slower once it got within 50km of the Coromandel and then slower again in the Gulf, my pick would be about 1.5 – 2 hrs, but yes it still would likely have been well before 7am when the communications start flowing!

  13. Presumably the decision to close was made subject to a preset protocol, which should be reviewed/fine tuned from time to time. What concerns me is that such important operational decisions are made at KiwiRail HQ in Wellington. Surely the Auckland suburban network is of sufficient size to merit its own command and control system.

  14. I caught the train at Panmure after the resumed. As we approached Britomart the train manager announced we were heading to The Stand, within a minute of this we were heading past The Strand and down into Britomart as normal, with people looking completely baffled. I’ve come to learn over the years when there is disruption whatever the train manager says the opposite is probably true.

    1. Don’t blame the train manager they are only relaying information they are supplied. With the TCR below sea level in Britomart they too were evacuated then once setup in the alternative location sent back into their CR meaning there were long periods when no information was going out to crews so what you were told was probably the last the last thing they were told. OICs at the out stations were left to constantly changing and updating the plan along with TC, including getting as many 6EMUs on the network as possible while they were running at a reduced timetable to maximize capacity.

      1. Not blaming the TM, I have no idea how they source their information. It just seems odd that there is probably one person on the train who did know where we were going, given we were so close to The Strand they would have seen the signals (the driver who also has intercom access) yet it’s the TM making the announcement. Seems like an unnecessary extra step.

        1. With the driver being preoccupied with driving the train they would not see making announcements high on their priority list, things were changing so quickly this morning TC in Wellington could have just had the instruction to send the train to Britomart and given the signal down the tunnel instead of onto the Strand.

          1. Yep, driver should always prioritise driving over announcements, in this instance they would probably have known that an announcement wasn’t needed anyway, so would have saved a pointless and incorrect announcement. From my observation most things the TMs announce have been communicated to them by walkie-talkie from the driver anyway, just leaves things open to miscommunication and lag.

          2. Most announcements are relayed information via phone from the TCR (something that is often unreliable), in the ideal world the announcements could come directly from the TCR like those on most of the platforms but given what I’ve experienced on platforms they often announce to the wrong platform or with differing information than station and on-board staff are supplied so making announcements on the wrong train would be more confusing than the current system.

  15. I actually commend AT for closing down the train network (Britomart). But I do agree, all other modes including cars should have been closed as well.

    The problem New Zealand as a whole, not just Auckland, had learnt from this Earthquake and Tsunami is that our Public Offices are crap at communicating.

    Civil Defense was the winner for the crappiest communication. Issuing an Tsunami Warning after the Tsunami had hit was just unacceptable. 7.1 Magnitude can create a massive tsunami (I think it a 7.1 magnitude quake killed around 200 in Solomon Island when a massive Tsunami hit). If the expert (GEONET) suggest an evacuation, Civil Defense should trust the experts!

    Civil Defense bad communication snow balled effect and affected Auckland and pretty sure confused everyone not just AT.

  16. I was on Mt Albert platform and the boards were not working – just flashing something about “Civil Defence warning”. Then the woman came on the loutspeaker to tell us that the train for Britomart was at Glen Eden. I am not sure what I was supposed to do. Do wish there was a coffee stand or something on the platform as I was in no hurry.

  17. You are not alone Matt, I have the same frustration with Council Planners. The latest is that rear lot access widths have to be a minimum of 3.5 m despite decades of auckland council having 2.4.m As a result many subdivided rear lots are now no longer able to be developed. The reason for all this happening is after boring down into the Unitary panels evidence I find that the Fire Service made a submission saying they wanted 3.5m right up to the doorway of a dwelling so they could bring their FireTruck right to the building.Despite their evidence only being a recommended guideline and despite the Building Code specifically excluding detached dwellings and only requiring access width of 3.5m from 20 m to the front door, we now have a silly rule enshrined in the UP and valuable land is wasted on driveways for fire trucks.

    1. If the site is already subdivided it will be practically impossible to stop someone building a house. The Fire Service have a bit of a history of scaring decision makers, despite that fact that all they actually need is a hose. (And the fact that they seldom ever arrive soon enough to save any lives, it happens sometimes but not often. They are really only able to stop fires spreading.)

  18. This whole thing reeks of total incompetence!
    Here’s an idea… track gets closed for any reason then the reason is sent to HQ who then actually communicate it over various methods to the public.
    Even if for some reason the cause of the problem is not known they still need to be telling people that there will be disruptions/cancellations/closures right away. There is no point telling people when they reach their station as it is too late then.
    Living in London I knew to always check the line status (multiple apps for that) to work out that it might be better to take another line or take the bus.

  19. Anyone know if there is going to be the ability to switch tracks at Aotea so post CRL a limited service in and out of Aotea from the south could be maintained in this situation?

    1. There are no crossovers between Britomart and Mt Eden on the plans I’ve been given. There is the ability to run back up the line they come down and would likely see an Onehunga style shuttle system from Mt Eden to Aotea implemented if this was to happen post CRL and AT considered it safe to run if there was a potential that the electrics at Britomart would be swamped.

  20. I was tweeting out everything I could as I am on really early services but I don’t have the following the AT one has people like communication even if it isn’t 100% perfect just keep them in the loop

  21. Don’t feel so bad, the English have had tubes forever and the communications last week for changes around the Nottinghill Carnival were as bad as ever. Alerts were at odds with station displayed info.

  22. The whole tsunami system needs looking at, because there were reports of people walking their dogs on Mt Maunganui beach during the early morning, simply because they did not know a tsunami warning had been issued, yet the earthquake was off the upper East Coast of New Zealand. Basically, unless you had your radio or television on, or were on the internet you didn’t have a clue what was happening.

  23. I’ve been grumbling about this all day. I got down to Britomart about 6:55am to catch my western-line train and was told trains were stopped due to the eathquake. I asked where I could catch a western line replacement bus which got a response of non-understanding. I then said Avondale and was told to catch a bus on Albert Street. Rather than risk a two-hour bus ride to work I went back for my car.

    I was basically forced into my car to drive onto the north-western motorway and wondered if I would have been any safer in this mode. On the radio on the way I heard that Britomart had been re-opened, the roads and ferries were operating throughout. Really, with a tsunami warning? I don’t recall these modes doing very well during the Japanese tsunami.

    Please let’s have an inquiry and Lester Levy and others, please get this sorted out. Not happy.

  24. The answer to the question is because the rail network provider is responsible for the safety of its users, but the same is not the case of the roads, where individual users are responsible for themselves.

    It’s the same with earthquakes. 5.0 or bigger and the rail lines will be closed for inspection. The roads will stay open.

      1. There was a known danger present this morning. Had they intentionally ignored it and kept the lines open, and people got hurt, the network provider would likely be prosecuted.

        If people were washed away in their cars it would be declared an act of god, and nobody would be held to account. Criticized maybe, but not held to account in court as the rail operator would be.

        1. Actually that is not true Geoff. This is NZ a country where you can send men down a gaseous mine and not be held to account. You can order helicopters into a hillside north of Wellington and you will never face an independent inquiry and where cops can shoot and kill you on the North Western motorway while they miss the ‘perp’ and hey that’s no problem. Aside from all of that the issue is supposed to be about public safety not fear of future legal action. There was no safety risk and they shut the railway. At least see them for the pack of dicks that they are.

        2. If they are in their cars and they saw a tsunami coming they could easily ditch the cars and buses etc as they can be opened easily without problems. On a train if a tsunami were to be coming it would take a while for everyone to be able to get down, especially the elderly and disabled, let alone open the doors in an emergency

          1. Yeah some of the folks in Japan tried that method in 2011, didn’t work so well for them.
            By the time you see it its too late no matter what mode of transport you’re in/on.

  25. I saw Civil Defence Auckland say Auckland was not expected to be effected by the tsunami an hour and a bit after the actual quake, so I drove along SH16 to get to work. When I got to the office, there as a tsunami alert telling people to stay away from low lying areas. I was not happy.

  26. Train accident deaths? Government/council is incompetent and minister should be sacked. Road accident deaths? Oh, that’s unfortunate. With transport safety the general public gives stroppy teenagers a run for their money when it comes to overreaction and hypocritical responsibility dodging.

  27. From another perspective – order the police out to shut the motorway and Tamaki drive, almost impossible… clear lower CBD, totally impossible. Trying to do so would result in panic and many hours of disruption, probably collateral accidents and injuries.

    Shut Britomart, easy and easily reversible, no panic. The closest to a problem was the hilarious “Reports that Britomart is under water are FALSE *Please RT*”

    So it’s a cheap insurance policy.

    I’m more annoyed that the communication didn’t get sorted until the whole event was actually over. AT apparently has no contingency communication plan in place – or if they do, it’s totally valueless in practice. They have to re-invent this every single time.

    1. If the only thing we can do is close Britomart then we’re in for a massive tragedy if Auckland has a real tsunami.

      Thankfully we have the internet, tv and radio communications to inform us if such an event is happening.

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