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

  1. Kiwirail explicitly said in their press release that these works will result in “faster journey times” but it seems that’s more a ‘maybe’.
  2. 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.

https://twitter.com/LewisHoldenNZ/status/1577460964915843073

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:

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.

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68 comments

    1. How would you “stop” this madness at this point? The main failures seem to be in the past maintenance / funding decisions (can’t do anything about it), in communications about the state of play and coming works (can improve it, but it won’t do anything about what happened just up to now) and in a lack of mitigation for what is about to happen.

      That last thing is the only thing we seem to be able to have some control over. And I doubt that Simeon Brown will support the changes needed to attract a lot more bus drivers (more money for PT operations), and to get buses moving smoother and faster (more PT priority). I think he’s just shouting because as opposition, that’s an easy thing. What would HE do different except point at Labour / Michael Wood? That may well be justified, but what is HE actually suggesting? Nothing, it seems.

      1. Michael Wood should promise 24×7 dedicated bus lanes on the entirety of the replacement bus routes. If they could shut down the whole country in a rush for Covid, painting some yellow lines shouldn’t be a problem.

        1. Ironic, because while Brown is calling for more alternatives to get people around, he also publicly, actively hostile to buslanes (even temporary ones) in his electorate, and considers cycle lanes “forced ideology”.

      2. What the government can do here is fund a fourth main along the sections getting a third main, and then provide for a third main for the rest of the Southern Line.

        Apparently it’s entirely possible to add extra main lines without total network shut down that can be built to standard so, um, do that… and then when the current main lines are shut down totally to be replaced we’ve got the additional main lines.

        If that Lewis Holden thread is right (and I frankly wouldn’t trust that man to be right about anything, given the overall level of intellectual dishonesty associated with Republic NZ) it seems also to be the case that the government has to consider doing some of these jobs directly. Or, at least, creating something like the CRL company to deliver it, while KiwiRail fluff around on the Eastern Line.

        In the long term, it may be useful to give the electrified lines to AT and let KiwiRail have the new ones.

        1. This is NZ so you will need consultation, consents, property acquisition etc etc all of which will drag on for years even when “fast tracked”.

    2. Well kind of, he was really just pushing the open the borders agenda, I doubt he gives a stuff about public transport users:
      “pleading for urgent access to foreign bus drivers to fill shortages. Like every other business in this country, they are struggling to find staff.”

      1. Importing bus drivers? Sigh. Yeah, right. We could just make their job pay okay, and the rostering less sh*t – for which a lot more drivers would help! – but instead, National suggests we just get more people from overseas who don’t mind the bad conditions and low pay in our most expensive city? Suuuuure. Great “market” solution, National.

        1. Yeah those people from overseas shouldn’t get given the option to improve their lives

          (/sarc)

    3. You expect Michael “Ghost Cycle Bridge” Wood to step in and stop this madness?
      The further that Wood can stay away from this the better. Does New Zealand really have another $51million to spend on consultants, designers, empty office buildings for the rail network as they did on the Auckland Harbour Cycle bridge.
      I would appear that just as a National government committed the funds for the CRL its going to take National to complete it.

  1. “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”

    This seems to contradict David Gordon’s statements and the shutdown diagram which to me suggests that the Manukau Branch will have its own shutdown?

      1. Doesn’t closed by default suggest that it will be closed because the adjacent lines will be closed so they may as well close it? As opposed to closing only this section with trains running to Puhinui still?

  2. If they have the intention of keeping at least one route open as far as Puhinui at all times during the work I think we can live with it. Any shutdown between Otahuhu and Puhinui should be done at Christmas shutdowns and long weekends. It is still not clear how the third line through Middlemore Station will be built. I expect the east side will remain open but passengers heading for the city centre will be required to catch a train to Papatoetoe then change to a northbound train. Of course access across the track will still be required for the hospital. The completion of the third main gives more options for maintainence.

    1. Reading between the lines the serious pain is coming in 2024 when the section between Wiri and Westfield is shut and also when the inner part of the Western line is shut.

      1. Okay then I haven’t being reading the right article. A Wiri to Westfield shutdown would really stuff things up. I don’t have much knowledge of the Western line but I imagine bus replacement will be painful.

        1. It’s just reasonably obvious to me if they need 3 months for Westfield to Newmarket and 9 months for the inner Eastern line then they are not going to get Wiri to Westfield done during a Christmas shutdown.

          At some point in 2024 there are going to be no trains south of Westfield unless Kiwirail and AT have a trick up their sleeve.

        2. Except they will have a brand new third main if it is finished and I can’t see why it wouldnt be. But but but who knows surely they will come up with some excuse as to why it can’t be done probably to do with the overhead. Diesel shuttles where are they hiding the ADk,s.

        3. It seems they can’t work under live lines, although maybe that doesn’t include an adjacent track.

          Either way the schedule would have to be pretty limited on a long section of single track, which is also the busiest in the country for freight trains.

        4. They’re working adjacent to live wires on the third main construction now. But yes, directly underneath is not practical or safe with 25 kV.

        5. Yes I’m hoping with a third main (foundations done up to spec?), things can limp along, but with the most traffic coming through here, would be a serious reduction in throughput.

        6. I would think that any rail replacement bus service would be difficult to operate for a number of reasons:
          1) where will all the additional buses come from, unless the standard timetable is cut or a new fleet is bought (as per the Station Link project a few years ago in Sydney)
          2) Considering the significant shortage of bus drivers that exists in Auckland (and elsewhere) currently, who will drive these rail replacement services?; and
          3) And I can’t even begin to contemplate the timetabling and service delivery challenges given the additional levels of congestion that these works will inevitably lead to, especially on the Southern Motorway / Great South Road!

        7. For those living further afield than New Lynn, the replacement buses are a nightmare. The one section isn’t too bad as much of the bus network already mirrors the trains – the only issue is the lack of direct access to Newmarket.

    2. Continuing with christmas/summer shutdowns and weekend shutdowns is just not OK. A proper network that frees people from car ownership has to run all the time.
      We don’t shut the motorways down at christmas or weekends.

  3. There is a good reason now to remove car parking on those 1600 roads for more separated bus lanes and bikeways.
    With summer coming there are many of us who want to save on transport costs, reduce emissions and get more exercise.

    1. Yes! No time like the present to set up good habits. Plenty of research points to separated safe lanes as a catalyst for people to hop on their bikes.

  4. Welcome to the world of crappy buses everyone! Try and remember though that buses are great, transfers are great, speed doesn’t matter, terminating at the edge of the city is fine, slow single door boarding is fine, getting stuck in off peak traffic with no bus lanes is fine, the loud noise of a clapped out diesel engine is relaxing, and if you don’t agree you have mode bias.

    1. Jokes aside, let’s remember that 1000 bus services are cancelled every day. If that driver shortage isn’t fixed by the time these rail shut downs start…

    1. I think Kiwirail are addicted to control. It goes against their nature to create a sub-contractor eco-system because they’ll feel like they’re losing control and any profit made by contractors ‘should be theirs’.

      In contrast, Kiwirail could put out bids for work with some messaging about long term certainty. This would allow contractors to invest and innovate to improve overall market response and performance.

      The latter wont happen because it will eventually lead to the market creating a capability that AT or WRC can engage with directly to resolve their network issues, and KiwiRail would miss out on the 20% management fees they get for being the middle-man. So its just not in kiwirail’s ‘interest’ to create a market, and its in their interest to remain a monolithic monopoly….. with no incentives to be efficient.

      1. Although I think contractors can have a role to play (particularly in heavy renews work) there is a need to remember the lessons from the Railtrack debacle in the UK, including the significant accidents at Hatfield and Potters Bar. Both of these accidents involved maintenance delivered by contractors in an environment of limited oversight by the client. To my mind contractors shouldn’t be seen as the be all and end all, as they have to be managed by a knowledgeable and experience purchaser and the contracts have to be watertight re the transfer and management of risk.

  5. I understand that they have to turn off the overhead lines in order to do the work but why can’t they isolate sections of the lines for this. I appreciate there may be significant cost to this due to upgrading power infrastructure but even if you put in one isolation at Panmure (so while work was done trains could go either south or north from that station) you would significantly reduce disruption on a line that is apparently going to be closed for 9 months or so next year. It would also improve network resilience when they had overhead line faults.

  6. It seems that KiwiRail’s SOE status and profit motive has contributed to this lack of timely investment. Should the organisation structure of transit provision be changed to get the best outcome of these nationally significant infrastructure right of ways?

  7. So the slowest line by far, the western, is in the best shape?

    Let get some road crossing shut. While trenches sound nice, let’s not extend this rail disaster please.

  8. Do not like the NZ rail speed answer. Consider this. An elderly woman falls in the train doorway getting on a Southbound train at Penrose. The train is delayed five minutes whilst an Emergency Department doctor examines her and says she is shaken but ok. With faster rail time between stations the train can get back to schedule. Otherwise it will run late. Also out of service trains run faster on faster rail lines.

  9. They says “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.”
    With the current closure plan, I wonder if there are other renewals got pushed out due to time and funding cap, and then we will be informed in 2027 again about another extended rail closure. It makes my confidence as a regular user of train service in in AT and Kiwirail drops to the “red zone”.

    1. Not just renewals. Auckland Council adopted Auckland’s Climate Plan Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri in July 2020. For the entirety of the time that KiwiRail have known about the need for this work, they should have been planning it around upgrading the network to enable vast modeshift – of both passengers and freight. Only a stubborn refusal to pay attention to policy would mean they would ignore what a 64% reduction in transport emissions means for the rail network.

      Rather than keep all this work under their hat until now, KiwiRail should have been shouting about it and linking it to the modeshift required, in order to secure the necessary funding.

  10. Would be good to understand if AT / KiwiRail in their planning for this did analysis on the total cost to the economy the planned shutdown? And what mitigation strategies were discussed and decide on during their planning?

  11. “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.” Is this rebuild the opportunity to look at other improvements besides just track work? For instance if the Takaanini section was lowered say 2m so that carriage floor is near ground level, that should avoid the need for expensive retaining work as well as making the proposed overbridges less intrusive. Takaanini station would need to be demolished and space allowed for 4 tracking.

    Maybe also an opportunity to plan for the relocation of some stations; Meadowbank 1.5km further east, Papatoetoe nearer to the shopping center etc.

  12. Yes these shutdowns are absolutely necessary to keep their future shutdown program on track. Any delay to this shutdown means they will have to postpone the future shutdowns required to build the third main which would snowball and push out the shutdowns for each grade separation in turn.

  13. Are there any financial penalties or fines to kiwirail for closing the track?

    It’s all well and good having an SOE with a profit motive. But one of the side effects is, if they can externalise costs to save a buck then they’re almost required to. Charging them for taking track possessions is the obvious solution.

    It’s a similar story with the bus companies and cancellations. Wellington council has not been imposing any fines (that they can legally) for cancelled services. Of course the bus companies will take the max cancellations option, and not make best efforts to hire / pay more staff. They’d be silly not to.

    1. Kiwirail freight services are expected to ‘cover costs’
      https://www.kiwirail.co.nz/what-we-do/

      The rail infrastructure isnt profit making any more than the roads are , and indeed require almost all the government funding – alongside the capital costs for new Cook Strait ferries
      Note the only commuter rail services Kiwirail operates is the regional trains to Wairarapa and Manawatu plus the Hamilton- Pukekohe service

  14. This is the general state of the nation. So much is spent time and one assumes, money is spent on grand announcements and fanfare of first sod turning, then that the only modern aspect of the Auckland Public Transport System, the electric trains, will cease to be useful until the other end of the CRL. As a 1980s child in this city, the fact their is any public transport is amazing, but as a father with my own young kids; it is frustrating that I can not sure them the wonders of the modern world without taking an aeroplane to a distant land. Tamaki Makaurau has so much potential as a modern, compact city, things must happen more quickly, and less public relation propaganda and outright untruths. At the moment beyond Simon Wilson and Jack Tame, there is little to have faith in the bigger picture of Tamaki Makaurau, except of course EFESO Collins. A mayor to unify the supercity and create a supercity!!!

    1. If your faith is with Simon Wilson, Jack Tame, Efeso Collins and the likes then Auckland already lost. It’s just sad what all those governments, councils and agencies done (or rather not done) to this city over the years.

    1. Low paid ?
      Rail track building isnt low paid , it requires high skills to work safely and operate the complicated machinery to the standard required.

      Sure its not a ‘degree’ work, but a lot of those jobs – outside trained professions- are comparable skills acquired in workplace after graduating

  15. This quandary should be a limiting test for the Minister of Transport and Minister of State Owned Enterprises to remind both NZTA and Kiwirail of their common funding source in NLTF and the NLTP and their common cause in the GPS.

    It will be a very difficult set of levers to operate. I suspect neither a Michael Wood nor a Simeon Brown has the skill or muscle to operate such levers as they are.

    This will need someone like Matt Gilbert or Stacey Wymer from Treasury to step in and mediate between the two agencies. With the implicit briefed backing of Robertson.

    Not optimistic.

    1. When you add the need to align AT and Ak Council, does that change which Ministers and public servants need to be in the room?

  16. Just bring back steam. Or pave the whole thing and turn it into Light Rail. Build Avondale-Southdown if you need freight capability.

    Given what we haven’t got in Auckland/ATAP 2 and now facing a shutdown of the rail network, the moral justification for the Regional Fuel Not-Tax is looking pretty dubious.

  17. “…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…”

    The linked post is five years old, so good to see the usual degree of urgency from AT there. Anyway, by the look of the post the only solution will be some sort of at least partial undergrounding from Mt. Eden to Sunnyvale – maybe it’s an idea to keep the pipleline of expertise around tunnelling until the second harbour crossing starts?

    1. The AT Sept 2022 bid notice announced only a request to write the business case for rail separation. They got noooooo mon-aaaaay.

    2. “maybe it’s an idea to keep the pipleline of expertise around tunnelling until the second harbour crossing starts?”

      Heh. But the public input hasn’t even started, Sanctuary. And a tunnel under the harbour would be the worst possible use of money in a constrained funding environment, given the decarbonisation work required.

      Everyone needs to push back on WK’s assumption that it’ll get away yet again with its big construction projects that are misaligned with policy.

      I agree, of course, that we need to keep a steady work programme going to build and maintain sector capability and capacity. That applies to walking and cycling bridges and underpasses to heal severance, road reallocation techniques, rail improvements including short trenches and tunnels. But we don’t need to present this as if the harbour tunnel is a fait accompli.

      1. “But we don’t need to present this as if the harbour tunnel is a fait accompli.”

        The cynic in me thinks the sooner we accept otherwise, the sooner we can start dismantling the structures that would have it be so.

        They are obviously prepared to strangle Auckland over anything that isn’t directly enabling the project they actually want to spend time working on.

      2. err, the “tunnel” under the harbour won’t actually be a tunnel. It will be a series of boxes that are constructed on land, then floated out and sunk into position. They are then joined ups and pumped out, to create a tube that sits on the bottom of the harbour.

  18. Doesn’t it make sense to also include reconstruction of the railway road crossings and either bridging or underpass.
    Or I can see In the not to distant future this will be the next series of closures, railway crossings should also be a priority

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