Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Matt was originally published in April 2014.

Next Monday will be a historic day for transport in Auckland as for the first time the city will have electric trains carrying fare paying passengers. Electrifying the rail network is something that has been talked about for 90 years, mostly in conjunction with a version of the City Rail Link. While Britomart was undoubtedly a turning point for rail in Auckland it wouldn’t have been possible without some key events and a whole pile of luck that occurred just over a decade earlier, without which it is unlikely we would have a rail system today. One man was at the centre of it all and this is the story of how he saved rail in Auckland.

The story starts in the late 80’s where the Auckland rail network is in serious decline. The trains were being run under the name of City Line which was part of NZ Rail Ltd and also ran a number of bus services.

Unlike Wellington which had just fairly new electric trains, the trains running on the Auckland network were decrepit and consisted of former long distance carriages that had been converted for suburban use. They were originally built in 1936 and had steel frames but the bodies were made from wood. They were also hard to access, requiring customers to climb up into the trains from what were basically oversized kerbs that masqueraded as station platforms. The video below shows what these trains looked like and there are more linked to here. Also note: to change ends there was no driving cab like today, the locomotive had to be uncoupled and moved to the other end of the train at a station with a passing loop.

At the time Auckland had also seen numerous grand plans for new public transport networks but none ever saw the political support needed to actually implement them. At the time the latest idea was convert the western line to light rail using a tram train from Henderson then send it via a tunnel under K Rd before running down the surface of Queen St. The problem was the idea couldn’t get political support. The City Council didn’t want trams on Queen St and the regional council saw it as competition to the Yellow Bus Company which they owned 90% of. That left Auckland with its near derelict trains and not much hope for the future.

It’s now the early 90’s and enter Raymond Siddalls. With a year to go before the regional council took over the contracting of services he was in charge running the suburban fleet. His bosses had also tasked him with shutting the Auckland network down. With an aging fleet, falling patronage and little political support (both locally or nationally) no one thought it could be made to work. After looking at the operations Raymond was surprised to find that with with a restructure he was be able to cut down the costs and actually have the company start making a profit on the gross contracts it held.

The critical time came in 1991 when a decision needed to be made on how to move forward. New legislation controlling how public transport services would operate was coming into effect and basically changed everything. No longer could PT be treated as a social service and the focus was on making PT stand up commercially. The legislation also didn’t allow for any distinction between rail and bus services which meant bus companies could tender for rail routes. Note: this legislation is still in effect today and has had a significant negative effect on the planning and provision of PT for over two decades. The new PTOM legislation should address most (but not all) of the issues it caused.

With the network actually making a profit the operation was kept going and the operating company tendered for the 120 services a day that they were already running (today there are something like 365 services per day). One problem though was each service had to take on the full cost of running the network. They subsequently were able to re-tender for the services as a combined timetable which allowed the costs to be shared across all services.

The councils started to get on board and the company was awarded the contract in the South for three years while in the west it was for four years. They were then able to successfully argue that with a 4 year contract on the entire network there was a chance to look at new rolling stock which would boost and the councils agreed to this. The contract was due to start in June 1992.

Around this time it just so happened that one staff member was about to go to Perth to attend a wedding. Perth was just about to finish electrifying their rail network and so the staff member was asked to drop in to find out what they were planning to do with their unneeded DMU’s (Diesel Multiple Units – the ones that don’t have a locomotive).

It turns out there were no plans for them and so subsequently Raymond flew over to inspect and value the trains. He made a call that there were no other buyers interested in them and so put in an offer for them at scrap value. All up he was aiming for 20 trains and his hunch about no other buyers being interested paid off, managing to secure 19 of them.

One of the ADLs as they looked before being refurbished in the mid 2000’s

With a new fleet of trains seemingly secured it wasn’t the end of the problems though. Perth is flat and the steepest track has a grade of 1:200 while Auckland is far from flat with trains needing to be able to handle grades of 1:36. This meant many needed their engines and transmissions overhauled to be able to handle the Auckland conditions. They also wanted to refurbish the trains by re-upholstering the seats and replacing the floor coverings. Lastly they had to raise the platform heights around the network so that people could actually get on to the trains. To make things even more difficult in Auckland the rail unions were striking trying to reopen the workshops and re-employ some of the staff who had been laid off by the earlier rail restructuring.

To fund the overhaul, refurbishment and raise the platform heights it was determined that the only way they could make it viable would be if the rail contract was extended to 10 years. Due to the confirmed availability of rolling stock this was considered a good deal. As such the regional council ended up voting unanimously to support the proposal with one person abstaining – the abstention was from a light rail advocate.

In another stroke of luck all of this happened just before the rail network was privatised, something that could have put the whole idea in jeopardy.

At around the time the DMU’s were introduced patronage on the rail network reached its lowest point ever of just over 1 million trips per year. Within a couple of years after their introduction, the DMU’s were responsible for a reverse in the in the patronage decline that had been witnessed over the previous decades. It then continued to grow and reached about 2.5 million trips before Britomart was opened. It was also that growth that helped give the political courage needed to get Britomart built.

Historic Rail network patronage

Raymond also happened to table the idea of Britomart all the way back in 1990 and he was instrumental in ensuring that a corridor was left to the site of Britomart as the initial plan had been to sell off the old rail yard land entirely.

Put simply without the actions that Raymond took we almost certainly would not have a rail network today that is about to served by modern electric trains. He has been a hero to PT in Auckland that I think the city should be eternally thankful for. Thanks Raymond.

Note: Thanks to Raymond for agreeing to share his memories with us. Also thanks to Auckland Transport (where Raymond currently works) for allowing us to talk to him.

PS: this is what the graph above looks like now just four years on

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  1. I had the privilege to work alongside Raymond in 2014. He truly is a wise and great man. I hope that he is put into a much higher place in AT Management in 2018 – he deserves it.

  2. Interesting to note Auckland Transport’s new CEO Shane Ellison was the manager in charge of Tranz Metro Auckland after Raymond Siddalls.

    A number of former managers from NZ Rail / Tranz Rail / Veolia / Transdev work for Auckland Transport.

    1. Yes, Auckland Transport’s Rail Services Manager Craig Inger is an ex-Veolia manager.

      It’s the same old people who have been running Auckland’s rail system for years working for Auckland Transport. Could there be any connection between this and the fact that the same old mistakes and cock ups keep being made..?

      The management history of KiwiRail, Toll Rail and Tranz Rail before that, is the same with the same old people just given new titles and positions working under a new company name.

      If you keep doing the same thing, you will keep getting the same result..

  3. Interesting history. So if it wasn’t for the Perth wedding we perhaps would of lost our passenger rail network. I note the blip in the graph around 1975/6 was this due to the oil crises and carless days and I’m guessing maybe cheap fares may have been offered then?

    1. Carless days and a matching/related weekend petrol sales bans were brought into effect late in the 1970s in response to the “second oil shock” caused by the “Iranian revolution” [which occurred in early 1979].

      That uptick won’t be due to those events, but could have been petrol [tax] price hikes [Muldoon striking again]. Or it could be something else.

      Whatever it was, it worked, so well in fact that it caused a significant uptick in rail patronage to levels not matched for nearly 30 more years [around 2003]!

  4. Yes luckily Mr Siddals was around and Tranzrail were willing to get on board.

    And this and the experience with Perth Australia are good guides as to how other cities can introduce or reintroduce commuter/passenger services: Start off small and when established slowly build-up. I’m thinking that in particular: Tauranga, Christchurch and Hamilton should be looking at the same approach.
    A big reason why cities are put-off is because so many advocates foolishly try to run before they can walk and can only imagine some horrendously expensive new network off the bat with no established patronage.

    In my strong opinion: Part of why Christchurch missed its opportunity 5 years ago is because the people at the top of their rail advocacy groups were demanding expensive systems off the bat including electrification, double-tracking corridors and even (you guessed it) Tram-Trains. The big tragedy is that this was at a time when the DMU’s and push-pull carriages were becoming available from Auckland. With their CBD “munted” (to use the Cantab’s own terminology) from the second earthquake, Christchurch had a great opportunity to get a new rail terminus within their CBD instead of the Moorhouse avenue location that had failed. This could’ve been a great starting point for them.

  5. I used to ride those wooden carriages to Mount Eden from Glen Eden at 7.25 am. I would then walk up the overbridge to Mt Eden Rd, catch a citybound bus up to Symonds St, then down Symonds St, and get off near my workplace at Airedale St. Timing was tight but I would almost always be at work by 8:00 am. I always had a seat on the train, but nearly always had to stand on the bus. The route was reversed on leaving work at either 4:30 or 5:00. Sometimes I would have to stand on the train as far as Kingsland.

    If you would like to check out the interior of those carriages, there’s an article on railway changes in the Western Leader of 20 August 1980 with a large photo of passengers riding in a carriage. I’m the fellow with the moustache sitting in the rear seat and we are on our way to the city in the morning. The photographer used a professional quality camera mounted on a tripod. Back copies of the WL are available for inspection (free) at Henderson Library.

  6. “The trains were being run under the name of City Line which was part of NZ Rail Ltd and also ran a number of bus services” – CityLine trains and buses were actually always part of the New Zealand Railways Corporation, not NZ Rail Ltd (which came later, and the only buses it ran were Interislander ferry shuttles).

    When NZRL was created and hived off NZRC in 1991 it took the trains and rebranded them CityRail, leaving the CityLine buses with NZRC to be sold off. NZRL was privatised in 1993 and renamed Tranz Rail in 1995, when CityRail became TranzMetro.

  7. Those old carriages really were excellent. They had big comfortable seats- and everyone got a seat. We used them daily to get to town from Ellerslie. The conductor only bothered to come along every second day or so. That meant half the time you could ride for free.

    1. And now days the Conductors (Train Managers) don’t check the tickets at all as per Auckland Transport’s system, and now lots of people ride for free every day.


      1. Grace, I just don’t think that adopting a commercial approach has anything to do with the way AT think. I was looking on the Parkopedia site a few minutes ago and AT’s Victoria St car park was less than a third of the price of any adjacent commercial operators.

        Sometimes I am on an off peak train with two or more attendants and we go past stations with multiple AT attendants and yet there is a dispute over whether there should be just one attendant on a train.

        I am looking forward to the AT shake up.

  8. One of the comments here refers to the economic reforms and no longer running PT as a social service. It also mentions how the rule changes are still negatively effecting PT today. Taken over New Zealand as a whole that also applies to a lot of the “reforms” and is still negatively impacting a lot of areas of our country. We can only hope that with the change of leadership we start to implement evidence based rather that ideologically driven policy. The market exists to serve society, not the other way around.

    1. Public transport is inherently a “social service”.

      Problem is that inefficient public transport ca be an extremely expensive “social service”. Unsustainably expensive.

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