A friend inspired this post with her attempt to use Parnell Station recently. I received a phone call from her, saying she was late to a meeting because she had tried to catch the train from her workplace in Parnell.
The story she told was one of great frustration:
1. She had trouble finding the station, taking a wrong turn down the back streets and having to double back & search for the way down the hill.
2. Next, she arrived at the platform, but couldn’t find the way to the other side to catch the train, and eventually found out you have to walk hundreds of metres up the gully to a culvert that lets you pass under the tracks, only to walk back down the other side.
3. Then while she was trying to complete her expedition up Mt Everest Parnell Station the train came and went.
4. She stands in the scant shelter at the wrong end of the platform trying to hide from the rain with little people about. No matter she thinks, I’ll get the next one. But as next trains the Western & Onehunga express through, her frustration continues to build.
She later says to me, huffing that she should have just caught the bus as usual, but she asks “what the hell went wrong with Parnell Station?” Why is it so hard to get to, how come it’s so hard to get to the platform, why don’t the trains stop there?”
The answer to those questions have a long & tortuous history. You see originally Parnell station was supposed to be somewhere else. The powers at the time realised there was a great opportunity for a very useful station in the area. The rail owner at the time, Ontrack, the train operator and the Council all agreed that the Parnell station should be down the lower end of Parnell, near the rail bridge over Carlaw Park Avenue. They discussed whether it should be the cheaper option just back from there on the solid ground, or if it should be a more expensive version build the bridge itself.
Either way, this was seen as an ideal location: On one side you had the new Carlaw Park development of offices and apartments, straight ahead you had the university, with tens of thousands of visitors a day, and Beach Road leading off to Quay Park and the Arena. To the other side you had Parnell itself, with close access to the dense cluster of jobs and apartments at the northern end, and lastly behind you was the Domain and the gully up toward Newmarket. In short, close to everywhere, and just minutes walk from connecting to the Link buses to boot. The planning work, the catchment analysis, the operations team all agreed, this was the best location, right in the middle of a range of busy and important destinations.
So what happened? Political interference. A politician decided that, against the advice of his own staff and the railways, that the station should be shifted almost half a kilometre away up the Parnell Gully. This was reported well at the time by Joel Cayford as well as Greater Auckland.
This one decision sealed the fate of Parnell Station to forever be an also-ran. This decision moved the station 400m further away from Carlaw Park, 400m further away from the University, further away from Beach Road, Quay Park, and further away from the part of Parnell that most Parnellites actually live and work in. It pushed the station into a gully where a full half of the catchment is a bush covered corner of the Domain, a place where a few hardy joggers visit during the day and nobody visits at night. This location moved the station away from any possible connecting buses, locating it down steep narrow alleys where buses cannot go even if you did want to put them through the tortuous diversion. To top it all off, this moved Parnell Station into a location that doesn’t even serve Parnell well. As my friend found out, the station will always be out of the way down the hill, tucked away via a warren of dog-leg back alleys. It’s hard to find, physically hard to walk to & a little scary with so little people around especially in the rain/dark. Indeed in this location, the only way the elderly or less abled could ever use the station would be by being driven down there in a car.
However, that’s not all. The downward spiral continued. The government saw the likely failure and declined to contribute funding and spent its money on other transport priorities. Unlike most projects they didn’t chip in 50% of the funding for example as they did for Otahuhu Interchange. The local government then had to pick up the full tab, which in effect cost ratepayers twice as much as it should. But likewise, the city had difficulty prioritising a lame duck over other more worthy stations/infrastructure and elected to only build the bare minimum. Then Auckland Transport and the rail operator declined to stop all the trains there, assessing the limited patronage gains and benefits to not be worth the impacts on the timetable, fleet utilisation and operating performance.
This left the city with a much delayed, half built, underfunded yet expensive station, located in the wrong place and served by only a third of the trains that pass through it. Not surprisingly, Parnell Station is currently duking it out for last place on the list of worst used stations Auckland. To be fair it is early days yet, and time will tell if this inner city station can ever pull itself out of last place.
So how could this happen? What could possibly possess someone to take a perfectly located station concept and, against all advice, move it out of the way, away from everything it might have been used for? The answer is unfortunately very simple: Disneyland.
“Disneyland Transit” is a term used in the transport industry to describe public transport that is built for image reasons. It is transit developed, not to actually move people, ease traffic or enable urban growth, but to create the right look and feel for passers-by. Like the fake old-timey steam trains of Disneyland’s equally fake Main Street USA, or the monorail of Tomorrowland that whizzes people around in a circle back to where they came from, Disneyland Transit is built in real cities by people who don’t want actual transport but want transport themed window dressing.
The best example of this in Auckland is the Wynyard tram, a tiny one-way loop tram that circles a few blocks of the waterfront in a couple of minutes. It is by all measures entirely useless for transport purposes, it is there simply to look the part, because waterfronts need trams, right? In this case, I don’t actually have a problem with a little Disneyland on the wharf. The tram is small, cheap to build and run, and doesn’t interfere with any real transit. It’s a bit of fun for the kids on a day out, a horizontal Ferris wheel with no pretensions of doing anything other than providing a few minutes of joy. That’s fine, but Parnell is a different story. Parnell is or rather should have been, a very significant part of the regional rapid transit system. It’s a stop on three of the four rail lines, in a general area thick with transport demand, people and traffic. This is not the place for Disneyland, but Disneyland we got.
You see the location of Parnell station was driven by a number of goals, none of which were actually about building an effective transit system. One of these goals was to create a themed historical destination by the old Parnell railway workshops, the main driver to shift the station platforms alongside. At the time a group of locals talked of a community centre and performing arts space in the old tin sheds. Unfortunately, nobody checked in with the people that actually owned the buildings, which have since been demolished to build a gated retirement community. A related goal was to provide a home for the old antique Newmarket station building, a wooden shed shifted from Newmarket when that station was rebuilt into a proper transit hub. It was decided that this building should be rehomed in Parnell, to create some sort of pseudo-authentic historical train station in a place where a train station has never been, and where no evidence of train activity remains.
A third goal was the idea that the grand old Museum building deserved a matching grand old train station, despite the fact that even the relocated station site is still very far from the Museum itself. Even the most cursory site visit reveals how poorly a Parnell Station would ever serve the Museum, between the two stand a great wooded hill and the expanse of the Domain. Walking from one to the other requires not only the best part of a kilometre hike through the bush paths and the roads of the Domain, but a vertical climb of over 50 metres, that’s the same as walking to the top of a 15 storey office block. Clearly impractical, this is pure Disneyland, transit for image, rather than transport.
So the mess we have is the result of political meddling, wilfully disregarding any actual transport considerations to try and create a heritage theme in the back of Parnell gully. Because of the lack of fundamental accessibility and connections, it is hard to see Parnell Station ever doing particularly much of anything on the rapid transit system.
It was amateur hour plain & simple.
Is all lost? Well perhaps not. Clearly, they need to provide a better link between the two sides of the station & tie into Carlaw Park to allow people to walk through to Stanley Street and the University. A better path up to Parnell Road would also help, but it’s hard to see quite how that could happen given the indirect nature of the street network and the steep hill. But the question is, after getting the fundamentals so wrong, can much be done to try and fix it? Or is it now an eternal case of good money after bad? Do we just accept Parnell Station was done for all the wrong reasons, write it off as a failure, and move on to bigger and better things especially with so many other stations needing funding to expand coverage such as Greenlane Southern Access, Sylvia Park Eastern Access as well as better access to Northern Busway Stations?
I get the feeling that twenty years down the track we will come back and shift the station to the right place like we did with Grafton Station. In that case moving it a few hundred metres from an out of the way corner under the motorway to a central spot close to the hospital and new university campus has caused it to skyrocket in usage, going from a whistle stop used only by a few high schoolers to one of the busiest stations in the region.
But for now, I don’t have much hope. The amount of money that has been sunk into putting Parnell Station in the wrong place ensures that nothing much different will be done anytime soon.