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.

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44 comments

  1. To boost travel Air New Zealand offers $49 airfares and quickly 100,000 are snapped up. Meanwhile KiwiRail announces it will bring back the Northern Explorer, but starting just after the school holidays end. To ensure your average family cannot afford to use the train anyway the non-refundable ‘starter’ fares are $129 for an adult between Auckland and Wellington (for an adult flexifares are $189 and flexiplus $229). And even if you get on the train it has the warning on the booking site “if you are planning onward travel please note this service occasionally experiences delays of 30 minutes or more” (perhaps due to the poor rails in Auckland). Meanwhile in Europe we see new night train services being re-introduced, hydrogen powered trains being trialed. We are pleased if we can get one slow train re-introduced between Auckland and Hamilton!

    1. $79 from Wellington to Ohakune, what a bloody rip off. I was feeling quite hopeful that they might reduce the price but it doesn’t seem like it’s changed. I really want to be able to take the train to the ski fields one day, but it’s not feasible with the current prices and service levels.

      1. And perhaps part of the reason that you drive is that don’t factor in the real cost by car. If we take the distance of 287km and we apply the IRD km rate of about 79 cents it has cost you $226 one way. But you were paying the insurance, wof, depreciation etc anyway, so it probably doesn’t figure in your thoughts.
        But is a starting price of $129 way too expensive? Yes it is. And it does come back to the fact that the service levels and the slow product mean it is not very popular and therefore those who do use it pay more.
        Oh for the trains of Europe where for a journey of up to 4 hours you choose a train as the first preference every time.

        1. and it is $93 for a child between Auckland and Wellington. Maybe cars should be fitted with an extra display that shows the ‘real’ cost of each journey 🙂

  2. Blaming “wheel profiles” is a lot less embarassing than admitting someone bought a large amount of dud $2 shop rail which Kiwirail has been using for the last five years and is now full of cracks. That means an awful lot of the work done over the last few years, the weekends and Xmas, is now down the drain and has to be redone costing millions and millions. Anyway, these EMUs were bought new especially for the Auckland rail network, Kiwirail would have specified and approved the wheel profile used on these trains?

    1. I heard rumours somewhere that they’re using the same rail on these replacements as all the recently laid stuff. So hopefully it’s not the steel itself and just due to incompetent maintenance and a lack of grinding etc.
      It would reduce the rumours a lot if they actually said what the story was

      1. We have a steel mills here in NZ but is there is a reason for not using local steel? We should be supporting the local industry not overseas.

        1. I think We currently have a law that means we aren’t allowed to prefer local contractors/ suppliers over overseas ones. This is mainly to prevent our local contractors becoming completely uncompetitive and gouging the government.

        2. “They don’t make rail for railways, it requires a specialised investment that in no way can be justified for NZ.”

          Wonder if it could be if we started building/repairing our rail big time, our new regional fast networks with shortcuts through the Bombay’s etc?

        3. Grant: No.

          Even Britain does not make its own rails any more. They bought up a large amount of steel rails and then closed the plant down / sold it off to another country / someone who gives a shit.

          New Zealand’s steel industry is fairly primitive and will probably also be closed down by the Aussie owners before too long.

        4. And in France for there High Speed rail they import the Billets from Britain and then in an Indian owned plant turn them into Rail for their system . So why can’t we make the billets and then get a trustworthy plant somewhere other tan China to turn and make them into rail for us ? , or get a heavier grade of rail say from the USA .

    2. For those that are truly interested in rail technology, the latest issue of Tramways and Urban Transit (TAUT) July 2020 edition has an excellent (and lengthy) discussion on the wearing of steel rails. There’s more to it than you might think….

  3. The Kiwirail release says that buses will replace trains between Newmarket and Penrose. So I am assuming trains will run from Papakura to Penrose and Newmarket and Britormart. So Southern line trains won’t run on the Eastern line. I dont suppose it matters much it still a mess but maybe some passengers from the south can still get to Penrose without having to change onto a bus. I wonder if the Onehunga branch is affected. Presumably its steel was purchased before the two dollar variety was purchased five years ago.

    1. Yes Onehunga Line is affected. and when they say Newmarket to Penrose they will be referring to it as the stations customers use, they’ve used that before for weekend closures too. So there will be no trains stopping at Penrose

  4. The workers who have been replacing all those km of lines have done a great job. I see them working on the roads and other construction jobs and they are getting things done tiressly.

  5. Would it be too much to ask for bus only lanes on the motorway while the trains are down? To be used by the train replacement buses and ensure reliable times. Capture some of the Covid19 innovating streets vibe.

    1. I think we can’t just blame Kiwirail but successive governments that we as a whole have voted in that have continually under invested in rail for decades until recently…and even then pretty minor investments really.

  6. Such a shit situation.

    AT network resilience time –
    Great South needs temporary (or not) bus lanes along its entire length. To provide for a reliable journey time for the southern rail passengers.

    Manukau Road is going to need the same for the Onehunga line shut down

    Great North Road & New North Road will need the same for when the western line is shut down.

    1. And you could also blame all the goverment’s from the time Lange came into power and when he sacked all the rail track workers , as he thought there were to many on the wage bill .

      1. There was from memory around 10,000 at that time. By the time KiwiRail came into being the headcount was ~4500. Sounds like there may well have been too many with a free meal ticket.

        Mind you, it’s not about absolute headcount so much as the right people in the right places.

  7. Do the units have self steering bogies?

    This type of bogie which allows axles to yaw slightly when going around curves cut down on wheels flange, rail contact reducing rail & flange war plus reducing rolling resistence.

  8. Rolling Contact Fatigue or Gauge Corner Cracking was basically the straw which broke Railtrack’s back in the UK and forced it into administration. It was identified as the primary cause of the Hatfield accident where are train rounded a curve at 115MPH and the rail gave way underneath it. The upshot of network wide TSR’s at 20MPH for miles on end basically destroyed the timetable and Railtrack’s finances.

    Reasons for GCC – welding/ stressing at the wrong temperatures; a haphazard maintenance regime, lack of training for the gangs, no grinding..

    https://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/docsummary.php?docID=188

    1. That’s interesting about the welding temperatures. Could you give me a source for that? I had a quick flick through the last of the Hatfield reports but couldn’t see anything on it there.

  9. Just noticed a FAQ PDF at the bottom of the Kiwirail website info page (https://www.kiwirail.co.nz/what-we-do/projects/amp/auckland-work/) on this, not sure if it was there before:

    https://www.kiwirail.co.nz/assets/Uploads/Projects/AKL-Metro-2020/Auckland-track-programme-FAQs-20200820.pdf

    “WHY HAS IT SUDDENLY BECOME
    URGENT?
    New testing introduced over the last six months
    – Eddy Current Testing and Phased Array
    Testing – has provided KiwiRail a much greater
    understanding of the extent of the fatigue
    problems on the Auckland network.
    Eddy Current Testing finds the locations of
    RCF and Phased Array Testing, an ultra-sonic
    test of the rails, is used to confirm the depth
    and severity of the cracks. This has shown us
    that issues are more widespread than initially
    understood.”

    1. Other interesting bits of info in there including:
      “WHY ARE YOU PUTTING IN SPEED
      RESTRICTIONS ACROSS THE ENTIRE
      NETWORK IF ONLY 100 KMS NEED WORK?
      Speed restrictions are put in place in areas where
      we know there is damage to the track so trains
      can operate safely until repairs can be carried out.
      These are at multiple locations spread across the
      network and speed restrictions change frequently
      as damaged areas are identified and subsequently
      repaired.
      This changing landscape of restrictions makes
      it challenging for a rail operator to run services
      that continue to meet their timetable. A blanket
      speed restriction will allow for a new timetable to
      be developed that can remain in place regardless
      of where and whether new areas of damage are
      located.”

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