A few days ago we learnt of the massive rail network shutdowns that will start at the end of the year and last for the next 2-3 years so Kiwirail can replace the rocks that sit below the tracks and ballast visible from the surface. There has been quite a bit of attention on the announcement this week so in this post I thought I’d give a bit of a summary of some of the coverage and new things we’ve learnt.
In my post I mentioned I had gone back to Kiwirail with some questions. Here’s what came back to me with.
How much faster will this work make services? – I note that services in Auckland have slower average speeds than comparable networks overseas.
This work targets improving reliability and resilience. One outcome will be removal of temporary speed restrictions but that is a by-product. The primary objective is to ensure the network can cope with the level of traffic post CRL and be readily maintained at that level without having to resort in the future to major shut downs. Actual speeds will be determined by Auckland Transport’s new timetable, once CRL opens.
KiwiRail is currently improving our maintenance systems/plant to ensure a more efficient, proactive approach to network maintenance once CRL opens. The type of maintenance we will need to do, coupled with the limitations on access, means we need to have better quality formation.
Why was this work not done at the same time as the rail replacement work in 2020/21?
The works in 2020/21 focussed on rail replacement driven by safety – particularly to replace/repair rail damaged by rolling contact fatigue. The Rail Network Rebuild is different – focussed on the foundations of the track (formation, ballast and drainage). As a general rule of thumb, 60-70% of top faults (eg rail/sleepers) are actually due to weaknesses in the formation, often caused by poor drainage. That’s what we are targeting.
The rail replacement work had to be done urgently, where the much more intensive formation replacement work requires a lot more planning and can only be done one segment at a time.
Why do sections of the network only 10-20 years old, such as the Manukau Branch line and parts of the Western line need replacement already. Does this indicate poor maintenance practices by Kiwirail?
No, and in part because the Rail Network Rebuild is not routine maintenance or renewal.
The work on the Manukau Branch is relatively modest and it will also be closed by default, due to work on adjoining routes. KiwiRail is taking the opportunity to accelerate some renewals to mitigate future disruption on this line.
The Western Line is a different story. The majority of the second track that was added to the Western Line is to standard, but the original double tracking project did not include replacing the formation of the existing line. The need to keep the other line running meant we weren’t able to do the ideal level of excavation in places for that second line. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if we all had our time again we possibly should have taken the option in the early/mid 2000’s when passenger volumes were low to close that line in its entirety and do both mains concurrently to a higher level. At that time however the concern was, “if we close it entirely for a period will commuters ever come back?”. So it was decided to keep it open, rather than risk it.
During the shutdowns will any of this include grade separation work?
We will tie in other relevant rail improvement projects when sections of line are closed, but there aren’t any specific funded plans focussed around major grade separation projects.
Two comments in relation to these answers
- Kiwirail explicitly said in their press release that these works will result in “faster journey times” but it seems that’s more a ‘maybe’.
- Auckland Transport had a tender that closed two weeks ago for a business case on programme of level crossing removal. Given the outer Southern and the Western line works aren’t till 2024, it seems that if they can get this business case delivered relatively quickly there might be an opportunity to tie the programmes together. This is particularly important as previous work on the topic has suggested full or partial trenching as the best solution to many of the crossings but the trouble is the need to regrade 1km or so of track and rebuild stations. This closure would be the perfect time to do that. The government should step in here to push this along and to guarantee funding for it.
I’m not the only one asking questions and Stuff’s Todd Niall had a few yesterday.
It is hard to know where to begin in exploring the baffling elements of the 2023 rail disruption unveiled without warning on Tuesday, plunging Auckland commuters into despair.
Was it that the track operator KiwiRail told Stuff that it knew by 2020, that the ancient foundations of some lines would have to be dug up, but Auckland Transport (AT) said it found out “months” ago?
Was it that the two agencies who spent months on the detail of how to shut down the lines, only told the city’s politicians several days before the council goes into a month-long, post-election political hiatus?
Was it that councillors were briefed on the months-long shutdowns hours AFTER the public was told in the managed release of information by AT and Kiwirail?
Was it that not only was there no mayor at the helm, four days out from election day, nor was there a chief executive at AT, after Shane Ellison’s June departure, with no replacement in sight?
In a separate Stuff article, they highlight the plight of disability users, saying that rail replacement buses are inadequate.
Disability advocate and wheelchair user Red Nicholson said trains were a far more accessible option than buses.
“If reliable and accessible forms of transport are taken away without replacement then there will be harm, and a lot of that harm will fall below the radar,” Nicholson said.
“Trains allow people with reduced mobility to get off or on entirely independently so you can board and disembark without someone else helping you.” In contrast, he said, bus drivers had to stop their route, get out and manually lower the wheelchair ramp.
“Catching the train you feel more independent, you have more agency over how you are living your life. With a bus you are more dependent on how someone else is feeling on that day.”
“This is something that can be the difference between getting out in your community and participating in society and being stuck at home.”
Human rights lawyer and advocate Dr Huhana Hickey said buses were inaccessible to her because she used a powered wheelchair.
“It’s too big, too powerful and I have a service dog. I can’t get on the bus,” Hickey said.
She also said that wheelchair taxis were out of reach at $160 for a ride from Papatoetoe to the city and wheelchair taxis were not available after 5pm if they haven’t been booked in advance.
I noticed this interesting thread by Lewis Holden, the particularly interesting part is at the end.
I’ve copied the rest of the thread below
A large part of the issue is that the contractors KiwiRail uses have limited capability to replace sections of track. In a 6 hour shut down overnight, the most a contractor can replace is about 150m of track. That’s digging out the ballast that holds the track in place then relaying the ballast, track and tamping the ballast back in place. What KiwiRail are talking about is a much more extensive rebuild of the roadbed that will take even longer. Auckland’s rail network has a route length of 139km, the vast majority of which is dual track.
At a rate of 150m that’s 5 years to rebuild the entire network at 150m a night… and that’s to do a partial replacement. Contractors would love to be able to use more heavy equipment that would speed the job up; unfortunately there’s no incentive for then to invest because their contracts are mainly one-off engagements. Ever since the Tranz Rail days offering multi-year maintenance contracts to contractors has been off the table.
Meanwhile, KiwiRail continues to own significant plant for track maintenance which sits idle because they keep losing the staff with the expertise needed to operate it to overseas rail companies, especially in Australia and SE Asia, and to make matters worse, they won’t lease the plant out to private contractors – even when they have staff with the know-how to operate the equipment. So basically, KiwiRail can’t decide whether it should build its internal capability (because it is after all a for-profit SOE) and giving contractors access to equipment and/or long term contracts to build their own capability
Radio New Zealand have run a few stories this week about it including:
- Concerns from disability advocates
- An interview with Auckland Transport
- An interview with Kiwirail
- Business groups are frustrated
Just on that last one. The article includes this:
Newmarket Business Association chief executive Mark Knoff-Thomas said it was frustrating their train service would be out of action.
Everything that could possibly be done to make the swap to buses as smooth as possible needed to happen – such as potentially reducing fares, he said.
So bus and bike lanes on Broadway then?
There’s clearly a lot of concern out there about the impact these works are going to have. While I doubt we’ll see any change to the plans for delivering the work, I do hope that the response seen so far will force Auckland Transport and Kiwirail to come up with some better mitigation plans. We’ll have more to say on this next week.