Rail, Replacement and Bus are three of the most fear inducing words of train users the world over. They’re words that Eastern Line users will have had to get used to over the last four-weeks as Kiwirail work to replace some of the 100km of worn out tracks across the network – that’s more than half the network. Although this disruption will have been reduced somewhat as a result of COVID restrictions meaning more people will have been working from home. For the rest of the network this worn out rail has also meant trains are now running to a maximum of just 40km/h and with reduced frequencies.
The trains are back on the Eastern Line next week and Kiwirail say that by the by the end of this week that they’ll have laid nearly 17km of new rail and more than 19,000 new sleepers. With the Eastern Line between Quay Park and Westfield being about 15km long, or 30km of track, that means they’ve replaced over half of it.
With the Eastern Line back in operation next week, it’s now the turn for the Southern Line between Penrose and Newmarket as well as the Onehunga Line to be closed.
Trains will be replaced by buses on the Southern Line between Newmarket and Penrose for four weeks from next Monday, 21 September, so KiwiRail can continue its urgent upgrade of the Auckland metro railway network. The move follows a four-week closure of the Eastern line between Otahuhu and Britomart, which will reopen to trains from Monday.
I assume that during this time that trains from Papakura will run on the re-opened Eastern Line.
Kiwirail have also now confirmed that four-week closures are now the norm and will be used for the rest of the Southern and Western Line.
“That round the clock access allows for a very productive work programme. Each four-week block of line gives us a 20 per cent increase in productive working times, compared with two separate two- week blocks, and means we can complete all necessary work in each section in the shortest possible time. By comparison, work done piecemeal at nights or over weekends would take months to complete, prolonging overall disruption to commuters.
“Based on that, we have agreed with Auckland Transport that a programme of rolling four-week line closures across the network will be the best and most efficient way to progress this work over the coming months.
“We are currently developing a programme that will primarily focus on working progressively along the Southern Line over the next three months, before moving to the Western line.
These rolling four-week closures are painful, especially as we’re likely to be in lower COVID alert levels and therefore more people are going to want to be travelling. In some situations there may be viable alternatives, such as the 18 service for New Lynn users heading to town and I wonder if Auckland Transport need to do more to advertise these alternatives but also look at additional rail replacement bus routes that avoid the worst of the tiki-touring in a bid to serve every train station. It would also be helpful if Kiwirail were to put online something that allowed the public to allow them to track progress with how much rail has been completely replaced.
What’s worrying is the exact cause of the rails failing is still unknown.
“We take safety extremely seriously,” Twyford said.
“We are also working really hard to understand how this happened – is it a technical thing, is it about the specifications of the track, or the wheels on the rolling stock?
“We have got expert advice being brought to bear to find out exactly how the situation happened, and how we prevent it from happening again.”
While Stuff understands the wheel profile of the electric commuter trains has been discussed as a possible contributor to damage, a report produced in 2019 focussed on inadequate track upkeep.
The work, by Opus for KiwiRail and Auckland Transport, identified long-term under-maintenance, ageing infrastructure such as sleepers and ballast, and an inability to keep up with increasing failures.
“Over the past five years only a small proportion of the [priority] faults were addressed within desirable timeframes,” the report said.
I’ve heard the suggestion that the wheel profile on the EMUs are to blame before however I also understand that the track issues extend to Pukekohe where the EMUs don’t yet run. Either way, the Opus report mentioned above suggests it is going to cost $200 million to fix but also to future-proof for when the City Rail Link opens in 2024.
I hope Kiwirail and other agencies are also putting in place robust processes to ensure this doesn’t happen again. One thing that will help is the latest Government Policy Statement, released this morning, has increased the maximum amount that can be spent on rail which Transport Minister Phil Twyford saying:
“Rail also gets a $500 million boost in the upper range to keep the network on track, which will help us reduce emissions, accidents and the costs of road maintenance by shifting more freight to rail.
What will help is the funding range is now $120-170 million annually for the next decade, up from $100-120 million in the draft GPS. The actual amount within that range is determined by Waka Kotahi through their National Land Transport Programme.