Rail users have put up with a lot of disruption over the last 15 or so years. Every Christmas/New Year or long weekend we tell ourselves that maybe this is it, that this is the last major shutdown and from now on, that now the network is finally fixed and we won’t have to put up with this disruption again. That coping mechanism reached new heights during 2020/21 when the network faced multiple months long speed restrictions and shutdowns after it was discovered the tracks were in much worse shape than previously understood and that about 100km of track needed. urgent replacement.
As I covered last week, rail usage has still not recovered to the same level as buses and ferries since those works with previous users seemingly changing if or how they travel.
But it seems all of those previous shutdowns were really just a practice run with Kiwirail and Auckland Transport announcing yesterday a massive series of shutdowns that will kick off at Christmas and last for two to three years.
Major upgrades to rail lines across Auckland will pave the way for more frequent commuter trains when the City Rail Link opens and will help future-proof the rail network for decades to come.
The $330 million Rail Network Rebuild will see sections of rail lines across the city temporarily closed over the coming years, so that the rock foundations under the tracks can be removed and rebuilt.
The work will move progressively across the Auckland passenger rail network – starting in early 2023 with the section of the Southern Line between Ōtāhuhu and Newmarket and the Onehunga Line.
KiwiRail Chief Operating Officer – Capital Projects David Gordon says the start of City Rail Link (CRL) operations in a few years will be a game changer for commuter rail in Auckland.
“CRL will allow more commuter services, not just in Central Auckland but across the city. However, for that to happen we need to make sure the existing rail lines can physically handle that growth.
“Like roads, rail lines wear out from use. We’ve been undertaking routine maintenance and replacing worn out track and sleepers and we’re now moving on to something more fundamental.
“The Rail Network Rebuild involves replacing the rock foundations (formation and ballast) underneath the tracks, some of which haven’t been renewed since the Auckland network started being built in the 1870s.
“We appreciate that this work will frustrate commuters, but it needs to be done. Given the scale of what we have to do, using our normal evening, weekend and holiday line closures could take decades to get it done. Even closing sections of line but allowing some peak services would push the completion date well beyond the start of CRL operations – which is unacceptable.
“Replacing the railway foundations will remove the growing number of speed restrictions that have been placed on the network in recent years and make it much more resilient.
“For Aucklanders it will mean more reliable trains, faster journey times, and is crucial to enabling the more frequent trains to come with CRL day one.”
They say the work involves lifting the existing tracks, digging out the existing ballast and the formation below it, adding a new formation layer and drainage to prevent future deterioration of it, then adding back the ballast and tracks.
The work is starting on the inner part of the Southern Line before moving to the Eastern Line with the outer parts of the Southern Line and the Western line happening sometime in 2024 and even into 2025. During the works freight trains and Te Huia will still run.
Following the usual Christmas/New Year network-wide closure, the Southern Line between Ōtāhuhu and Newmarket and the Onehunga Line will remain closed until late-March. Work will then move to the Eastern Line, which will be closed for most of 2023. KiwiRail and AT are currently working through the schedule for the next sections of work in 2024.
The majority of the Rail Network Rebuild is expected to be finished before CRL construction is complete by the end of 2024. It is likely some lower patronage lines – such as the Manukau – Puhinui Line, the Swanson – Henderson section of the Western Line, and the part of the rail network between Newmarket and Britomart (which will see a substantial drop in train frequency once CRL is running) – will be completed after CRL is open.
I get that this work needs to be done and we all want a better, more reliable network but it seems odd that the minister or anyone else didn’t step in and say no, find another way. Though we know they only told Auckland Councillors yesterday afternoon, despite working on this for seven months.
Closing lines for months on end is only going to severely erode confidence in the network and make it all that much harder to get people to use it again once the work is finished. One reason for that is despite Kiwirail’s claims that this is the shutdown to end all major shutdowns, their word simply can’t be trusted given how many times this keeps happening, not to mention that some of the network they say they need to replace is only a decade or so old, such as the Manukau Branch and large parts of the Western Line. You could say that Kiwirail don’t have a good track record here.
Can you imagine if Waka Kotahi suddenly closed a section of the motorway and dumped all the cars onto the local network for nine months while they rebuilt it. As rail historian Dr Andre Brett notes, governments would fall.
With the claimed improvements in network speed I’m also particularly interested to know exactly how much faster this will make services. Our trains are on average 5-10km/h slower than similar systems overseas and also slower than the original requirement for our electric trains – which was in line with those overseas systems. If we were achieving those originally required travel times we’d see the following on our existing network
- Swanson to Britomart – 43 minutes instead of 56 minutes
- Papakura to Britomart – 41 minutes instead of 50 minutes
- Manukau to Britomart – 32 minutes instead of 37 minutes
If we’re going to be closing the rail network for months on end, I’m interested to know what else can be done at the same time. Kiwirail do say they’ll do other works such as some forward maintenance as well as tying this in with other improvements like the third main works. But how about also progressing some grade separation projects. There are number of places where perhaps lowering the tracks by a few metres would make grade separation a lot easier and could be done at the same time, thereby helping to prevent future disruption.
I have asked Kiwirail some of the questions posed above but they haven’t got back to me as at the time of writing this post. I’ll update if they do.
Compared to yesterdays post, one thing I found notable is how we can go through multiple rounds of consultation stretching out over years just to make minor changes to a street to remove a few carparks but the core of our public transit network can be shut down for a few years without any input.
I also wonder how much consideration has been given to the economic impacts of these shutdowns. You may recall that back in 2013 in Wellington the Hutt Valley and Wairapapa lines were closed for a week after a major storm washed out the sea wall and left tracks dangling over the harbour. The economic impact of that line being closed for just a week was estimated at $12-43 million due to the increased travel times caused by people switching to driving. Taking out the physical cost of the repair works, the disruption was estimated to cost about $1.3 million per day. In Auckland each of our three main lines has a similar level of ridership to that Wellington line so even at two years of disruption we could be looking at close to $1 billion in impacts. I wonder what the cost would be to dramatically speed up the work?
The real challenge with the current shutdowns is how users will get around. And it doesn’t look good with Auckland Transport saying there may be some rail replacement buses but also possibly not.
“Although we do face some extra challenges with the current bus driver shortage, we are working closely with our rail operator Auckland One Rail to make sure we are offering our passengers the most reliable, and regular alternative transport possible in the circumstances.
Some rail replacement buses will be available, and AT will also be promoting its extensive network of scheduled bus services which customers can use when their train isn’t running. Ambassadors will also be on site at affected stations to help make it easier for affected passengers. More information about alternative travel options for Onehunga Line and Southern Line customers affected by the first stage of work will be available from November.
Rail replacement buses are a poor substitute to begin with, often taking considerably longer than the services they replace as well as not having much capacity, less space for those with wheelchairs/mobility devices and prams etc. Even if they do have space they are harder to access. They also have no space for bikes.
AT need to do a much better job here and look to more systematic changes to support stranded rail users. A couple of ideas should include the systematic and urgent roll out of bus priority along parallel routes. Those routes should also get fully protected cycleways to help provide additional alternatives – and how about a subsidised e-bike rental scheme to give people one some additional options. This kind of scheme could also be rolled out to other parts of Auckland. And given the precedent set by the rail network closure, this can be done without the need for consultation.
These kinds of measures are needed to help prevent people jumping back in their cars and clogging roads. They could also be a useful trial run of some of the interventions we’ll need as part of The Emissions Reduction Plan.