Last month Kiwirail and Auckland Transport surprised us by announcing nearly 3 years of rail closures starting at Christmas in order to fix the foundations that sit under the tracks. Yesterday Kiwirail released a bunch of reports and ministerial briefings from over the last 3 years covering the issue.

I haven’t read all of the documents in detail but here are some of the most interesting things I picked up from skimming through them.

The issue has been known about for a long time

This work to fix the rail network is known as the Rail Network Growth Impact Management project (RNGIM). It’s origins stem from 2019 when Auckland Transport commissioned a business case “to assess the case for change, optioneering and value for money of ‘Catch-up Renewals’” on the Auckland metro network.

A high level infrastructure review in May 2019 found the track was in poor condition and that while Kiwirail knew about the issues, noted:

Whilst KiwiRail has experienced and competent track maintenance personnel, the efficiency of the work undertaken is compromised by the lack of track access time and resources. This has the result of programmed work not being finished within the track time allocated and the deferment of some works.

From evidence gathered, the effectiveness of KiwiRail’s maintenance strategy is arguably sufficient for the existing network operations. However, given the scale of the maintenance task ahead and the limited availability of track time and skilled resource, we believe that there is a high risk of network deterioration to below an acceptable condition that warrants further intervention now.

In our view, it is clear that the existing asset condition, resourcing and maintenance strategies will not be sufficient for the reliable and, ultimately, safe operation of planned future rail services in the Auckland area.

Concerningly, faults on the network were getting worse, averaging close to 120 per month by early 2019.

Temporary Speed Restrictions (TSRs) as a result of faults appear all over the network but appear to be concentrated in a number of locations. By mid-2019 they were averaging about 50 per month and covered over 8% of the network – and both of these figures were increasing.

All up, an analysis of train delay data between July 2016 and June 2019 found 411,000 hours of delays “with a root cause attributable to maintenance and renewals practices“. There’s also a potentially 52k hours that could potentially fall into this category.

That infrastructure review fed into the business case which came up with the option to overhaul the network as well as improvements in technology, equipment, training and processes for ongoing maintenance. They estimated this would cost $183 and had a benefit cost ratio of 5.4, which is better than most big road projects. This work was anticipated to take about four years from 2020 but the project was put on hold when it was discovered just how bad the Rolling Contact Fatigue (RCF) issue was in August 2020.

If sitting on this knowledge about the state of the network for three years sounds bad, worse is it seems most of the issues were known about at least as far back as 2014. In a paper to Kiwirail board in April 2021 – where staff asked for approval of an additional $140 million for the project – in a section talking about the root cause of the RCF issue they say:

‘The closest single root cause could therefore be stated as a missed opportunity during 2014-2017 to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Network Rail Consulting report. Appropriate responses would have been to:

  1. Upgrade the track asset OR
  2. Modify or operate the units in a way that specifically recognised the track was not upgraded OR
  3. Introduce a rigorous grinding regime OR
  4. Study and implement the lowest TCO approach that optimised all three issues.’

That 2014 report was commissioned by AT in advance of the introduction of the new EMU fleet

That board paper also highlights an interesting feedback loop issue to do with the RCF. One of the issues identified was the wheel profile on the EMUs causing Wheel Rail Interface issues which contributed to the RCF. However, the paper notes that the wheel profile was modified from Kiwirail’s standard “to avoid anticipated high wheel flange wear” as a result of high vehicle stiffness. But the high stiffness designed into the trains was so that they could better negotiate Kiwirail’s track irregularities safely and comfortably.

The extra $140 million was primarily to cover an increased project scope and more accurate estimated costs. This brought the BCR down to 2.3 – it’s interesting they revised it when Waka Kotahi never seem to with their mega state highway projects, even if they double (or more) in cost.

Ministerial Briefings

It appears the Minister of Transport was told about this issue at least as early as August 2021 and the documents released include briefings in October 2021 as well April, July, August and September 2022.

In the October-21 paper they some scope on the RINGM project, with Kiwirail comparing scale of work as the equivalent to rebuilding a third of the Auckland network. They suggest they would need about 1060 work days, which if they carried delivered it at their current pace of about 42 days per year, would take till 2041.

Kiwirail’s initial plan was to deliver the programme over 5 years from mid-2021 and finishing at the end of 2026

With a lot more planned access and moving progressively around the network, KiwiRail is confident that RNGIM could be completed in 2026, without the need for a full network shutdown. The initial focus would be to prioritise upgrades to the core network which are critical to CRL before it begins operation, then move onto the outer parts of the network.

It seems they don’t count the Western line as part of the core of the network as work on it wouldn’t have started till after the CRL opened. That’s crazy given the Western line benefits the most from the CRL and carries the most passengers, though as a Western line user it also doesn’t surprise me as services to the west are almost always de-prioritised over Southern and Eastern lines if there is a conflict.

To achieve that 2026 timeframe, they were investigating a couple of options alongside AT.

The approach could include a combination of:

  1. AT’s initial idea to close lines or sections of line, possibly for months at a time, to allow RINGM and any relevant NZUP work to be completed outright. This would require commuter services to be replaced by buses but would avoid longer lasting disruption and operational changes for commuters. Once reopened, the lines would be up to standard and without speed restrictions, which currently impact AT’s timetables.
  2. Closing lines during the day between peaks to carry out work. This would also presumably require bus replacement and is not as efficient as complete closures, given the time needed for staff to set up and decamp. This could result in works taking a lot longer.
  3. There is potential on parts of the double-tracked network to close one line for sections, diverting trains onto the other line. This single line running is similar to Stop/Go on the road network and allows one side of the track to be closed for construction or maintenance work while diverting traffic to the other side to keep the network open. This would support the continuation of metro services in some parts of the network, albeit with likely timetable changes. This is the approach taken with crossovers being installed between Papakura-Pukekohe over Christmas, which will allow freight services to continue operating while P2P and Drury Stations work is carried out over the next few years. As part of the existing programmes, additional infrastructure is being installed at strategic locations on the network to allow for more single line running operations.

In April 2021 they note they’re close to an agreement on the timing of the project. One thing that stands out is a comment that they planned to still run some services on the eastern line during its 8-month shutdown but only during the peak and only in the peak direction. This was dropped from the final plan.

The next major update is the September briefing which confirms the plan that was then announced in October. A few interesting paragraphs from the briefing are below:

  1. Auckland Transport (AT) will be using a mix of bus replacement and existing bus services to help manage commuter disruption. Given the general inconvenience to the public in stopping regular rail services and potential capacity issues with bus replacements and existing bus services, we do expect to see a drop in public transport use in specific areas as people choose to work from home, cycle or drive instead.
  2. However, we expect this will be limited to the period of works and AT will be encouraging people back to trains once work is finished in each stage. Given the renewals will remove existing Temporary Speed Restrictions, we expect more reliable services across the network over the next few years, prior to the start of CRL operations.
  3. KiwiRail and AT have agreed the timing of the first two stages of work, with exact timing of the remaining stages yet to be finalised. The focus is on completing the inner and other key parts of the Auckland Metro Network before CRL begins operating in 2025. The Manukau Branch Line, Newmarket Line (which needs to be used for CRL commissioning but will see train frequency drop from 18 to four trains an hour once CRL begins operating) and the Swanson – Henderson section of the Western Line, which has lower commuter use, are expected to be completed by Q3 2025.

It feels like AT are being overly optimistic that people will just come back once the works are finished. The reality is the rail network still hasn’t recovered to the to the same level as buses and ferries since those works with previous users seemingly changing if or how they travel.

It’s also notable that they say the Newmarket Line will only see four trains per hour after CRL opens. We’re yet to see any official post-CRL network plans.

The do include this table which shows how many people will be impacted and some of the alternatives for people for each station.

There are also some comments about some of the other work that will happen around the network while the shutdowns occur.

  1. Where possible, work stages are timed to coincide with other projects, to avoid creating further disruption later. For example:
    1. While the Eastern Line is closed, AT is co-ordinating its work to install a new pedestrian underpass near the Meadowbank train station.
    2. Renewals on the Southern Line between Papakura and Pukekohe will be undertaken while the line is already closed to metro commuter services for the electrification project. This means it will already be up to standard when commuter trains again run on the line from late-2024, cementing the improved level of service on this section of line. The building of new motorway overpasses in the area will also be undertaken during the line closure.
    3. The Western Line will be broken into sub-stages and will be aligned with installation of a new power feed at Glen Eden, funded through KiwiRail’s Rail Network Investment Programme (RNIP) – which will help reduce commuter disruption. We will also prioritise the section between Newmarket and Kingsland, so it can be used to support transport to events at Eden Park.
    4. As noted above, Henderson – Swanson and the Newmarket Line may need to be left to post CRL opening. The decision on when to open CRL will include consideration of the RNGIM works. During renewals work in each stage we will also do other maintenance, where possible. This could include, replacing sleepers that may need to be replaced in the next year or two, or remove trees that we can see being a problem later. This is about thinking ahead and trying to avoid the need to come back and cause further disruption in the coming years.

I suspect the underpass mentioned near Meadowbank is for the connection from Gowing Dr to the Eastern Path – I note that the path is below the rail line at that point.

As someone who will be affected by the Henderson to Swanson section being delayed, I find it quite insulting that they just dismiss this section as being low use. In 2018-19 the three stations of Sturges Rd, Ranui and Swanson combined had over 700k boardings. That’s equivalent to being about the 5th busiest station on the network.

The paper also covers the issue of partial services on lines being worked on.

  1. KiwiRail and AT have investigated alternatives to full commuter rail closures – for example allowing peak rail services to the CBD in the morning and back in the evening. However, given the overhead electric cables will need to be turned on for EMU services this presented an additional safety risk to track workers. KiwiRail freight trains, Te Huia and the Northern Explorer are diesel and do not require the overhead cables to be switched on. In addition, running peak daily EMU services introduces further operational complexity, which would extend completing renewals to key parts of the network beyond the start of CRL.

Finally, there’s a paper on how the modelling they used to come up with the proposed plan. It seems to suggest that they had options which would have completed the works up to six-months earlier but dismissed them as it would involve working on multiple lines at the same time so had higher costs and customer impact. It also includes this image which shows just how much work is needed for the different types of issues they’re fixing on each section.

There’s a lot of information in these docs so let me know if there’s anything interesting or important I’ve missed.

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  1. We are lucky that Kiwirail didn’t design the Auckland power grid. They would be turning off all of Auckland to replace one street light.

  2. I know it is not main focus of this piece but want to tautoko your comments on Western Line. Henderson station is a clear example of how the West is thought of by the authorities, smashed glass unreplaced for months, lifts and elevators rarely working and the whole place looking disheveled.

    1. LOL you think that only is in the West. Panmure Station and the adjacent overbridge had smashed glass that wasn’t replaced for over a year. Also now on the overbridge one of the replacement glass panels was already smashed again and it’s been a couple of months and no replacement as yet for that.

  3. As a lifelong public transport user, I find this whole situation insulting. There has been no consultation or analysis of the enormous impact that this is going to have on train users. It’s not just office workers, there’s school kids, disabled people, elderly people, tourists and late night workers that won’t have an essential service available to them for 3+ years.
    I feel like AT pled innocence when this was announced in October but in actual fact they were hand-in-glove with KR all along. There’s been no consideration on how to mitigate impact beyond ‘tough it out’. I’m getting more furious so I’m going to leave it here.

    1. Yes, and I imagine there are multiple legal problems with this. These changes absolutely meet the definition of “Significant” so there are legal requirements for Engagement.

    2. I hear your frustration and I share your opinions. Nothing more to add, except to say that I am DEEPLY disappointed in all the authorities and ministers who sat on this knowledge for at least a year and have gone to ground since the announcement.

  4. I find it mindboggling that Kiwi Rail is stating ‘lack of track access time and resources’ to do proper maintenance.

    No asian or european country provides the same track access as NZ does (with the network ALWAYS being completely shutdown over new year for weeks, over easter, over public holidays, even over regular weekends). All these countries manage to do maintenance in much much smaller time windows, trains are of course operating during public holidays.

    Obviously this requires to regard Public Transport as a public good and not as a nuisance as we do here in NZ, where we are special.

    1. This is NZ this is how Kiwis work. You cannot compare them to any country or any part of the world. They do it in Kiwi way.

  5. I do not understand it, if this was known long ago. I would thought they would have checked the foundation before double tracking railway line? These would have fixed two thing in one go.

    1. No money, it wasn’t in the budget. Kiwirail was in a managed decline/on a starvation diet until 2017. If you spend decades gettting rid of most track maintenance staff, the capability is lost and takes years to regain.

      1. Yeah understandable for the older main but c’mon, for the new main done as the double-tracking of the Western Line, and the Manukau Line, they were only done 10-15 years ago. They absolutely shouldn’t require replacement of the formation if that job was done properly.

  6. 3 shifts, 8 to 4 4to12 12to 8
    Requires many personal from other countries?? PAY$$$,



  7. Forgot, bridge crossing light rail, it’s coming
    Make a stand, entry exit connectors
    Think 5yrs think light rail north shore, think the rail we have now use that same tracks,engines,staff,parts
    Oh and our tracks are different then the world’s, WTF
    And Penrose to onehunga to airport to Homai, oh look a loop but no, WTF, big bus interchange how much, big fancy bridge onehunga how much
    So very sad!!!

  8. No surprises. The whole national rail network needs to be upgraded for higher freight and passenger rail capacity if this country is to meet net zero emissions by 2050.

    It is time to have a national discussion on the future of rail as sustainable environmentally friendly national ‘steel’ highway network instead of regionalised discussions.

    Auckland region is one of 14 regions (once Gisborne is reconnected to the national rail network) that can has freight and passenger rail connectivity.

  9. They(AT) offer bus alternatives,but direct bus replacements for trains are clunky,how about rethinking this aspect.Very unlikely to have additional resource anyway,driver shortages. Existing bus services,need to be bolstered by pop up bus lanes, traffic light prioritization, etc, would be adding insult to injury ,to expect the current bus network ,to pick up the slack.
    It will however,highlight how much ,heavy lifting PT does, Aucklanders will have years of more commuter misery,may fast track cycling infrastructure, just kidding.
    There will be parents ,rethinking their schooling choices for the kids,as transport options become unworkable,also parents delayed in the daycare pick up,drop off,adding further cost and stress,to daily life.

    1. Yes, the mitigations seem to be a total afterthought (use buses, TBC???). And using the current bus service as a mitigation on its own doesn’t work, as you said. The part I find baffling is not just that they proposed this plan, but that all the people briefed seem to have just agreed to it without pushing for better solutions.

      1. The people being briefed and signing off don’t want a workable alternative; they want to drive everyone back into their SOV addiction.

  10. For the Southern & Onehunga Branch Lines are there any plans to create a Bus Lane on Great South Road, Newmarket Business District Area? Someone told me this was going to happen. This would enable Newmarket access improvements for people using Buses for public transport alternative to Onehunga & Southern Trains.

    1. Yes there will be plans. Internal meetings at AT will be happening about bus priority, and maybe some cycle lane projects also.

      Will they end up as projects, being constructed on the ground?

      I’m sadly guessing no.

      1. Well, Aucklanders according to our new mayor don’t want any road cones or “unwanted cycleways” – so probably no.

        “It would be irresponsible to take away road space just when people are being forced to drive more”. Mayor Brown, 2023 press release, probably.

        AT will be unable to move fast or decisively. Not when they have no vision (except, apparently, following the mayor’s press release expectations), no CEO, a Board with dinosaurs in charge, and all the lack of authority of an agency used as a scapegoat by every side (sometimes with justification, but still). I am deeply depressed about the next 2-3 years. Things won’t pick up again until this mess is over / and the CRL opens. But we will be picking up from a very low base again.

  11. What is very perplexing here is the fact that somehow we’re building the new Maungawhau station with a live line through it. And it definitely requires a lot of work in the track vicinity.
    Is this the issue of lack of switch points or perhaps with signalling? Why not install more points now so the trains can use one line? Even if it takes 3 times longer than the complete shutdown – it’s not going to be nearly as disruptive.
    It feels to me that KiwiRail is trying to do it what’s the easiest for them with complete disregard for the passengers.

    1. In partial defence of Kiwirail, they haven’t confirmed their plans for the Western line yet and it may well involve some of this.

      However the Maungawhau section is quite short, which has allowed them to retain 10 min frequencies just with extra fat added to the timetable to make it work. It’s also a static section so the crossovers were put in at the beginning.

      Even with increased crossovers the reality is with moving sections this would likely reduce the timetable to 20 mins or more realistically 30 mins, which is a very limited service and will likely have capacity issues.

    2. “Even if it takes 3 times longer than the complete shutdown – it’s not going to be nearly as disruptive.”

      3 times longer means these works would still be going on in 3-5 years, though. With all the significant extra costs, single-line operations, slow-go-operations, night time closures and all other disruptions that would come with it.

      I think now we are that deep in the deferred-maintenance hole, we should bite the bullet and do it faster. The issue is I have so little confidence in our agencies putting functional replacement services and mitigation (bus priority, cycle lanes etc) in place for the year or so it will take.

  12. The 50kg/m rails need to be replaced at nights with 60kg/m rails to bring the network up to the 20th Century or 68kg/m to bring it up to 21st Century. This increase in rail stiffness will immediately and dramatically reduce track faults. The ballast can be replaced at nights when the the ballast cleaner can be suitably crewed. Total disruption of Auckland network in election year is a Kiwirail decision.

      1. London Underground is mostly above ground and mostly in residential areas. They do work at night – I used to stay in a flat that backed onto the Hammersmith and City Line so I know this for a fact. No idea if the types of activities are restricted based on how noisy they are.

    1. Heavier rail and clean ballast doesn’t help when the formation hasn’t hasn’t been maintained in 50-100 years.
      Rail still fails.

        1. It looks like Mr Idioto has been involved in advising KR to dig out and replace the Auckland railway formations – and therefore closing the network for months on end. This is an objective of continued managed decline of rail.

          He has two choices: 1. Don’t risk his income stream and adhere to his advice about closing the network and replacing the formations – and meeting the overarching KR objective; or 2: Risk his income stream and dust off basic beam on an elastic foundation theory and realise a rail twice as stiff will only deflect half as much all other factors being equal. This means less deflections, less fatigue and less derailments but risks his job. KR have got you exactly where they want you – over a barrel – just like they have the Government.

        2. Wow.

          You leap to major assumptions on all fronts. Let me correct a few things so you may go away a little more informed.
          – Larger rails are going down but the deflections are too large for simply a larger rail to resolve the issue.
          – Repeated flexing of rails on poor foundation reduces the life of the rail.
          – I am not involved at all in this project.
          – There is so much rail work in Oz and NZ right now that we cannot keep up. There is no need to artifically pad work loads. Even if we wanted to, the review and approval process would prevent this.
          – KiwiRail, and private companies in Oz and NZ are hiring people as fast as they can to keep up with the work. Hey, why don’t you join us and show us what’s going wrong and how to do it better?
          – Believe it or not, KiwiRail employees actually put a lot of effort into maintaining/improving the network and figuring out the best way to avoid passenger and freight impacts.

          Try make a few less basic poor assumptions next time.
          Thanks for the laughs.

  13. Sorry Correction. For the Southern & Onehunga Branch Lines are there any plans to create a Bus Lane on Broadway to Manukau Road, Newmarket Business District Area? Someone told me this was going to happen. This would enable Newmarket access improvements for people using Buses for public transport alternative to Onehunga & Southern Trains.

  14. Well I don’t think we can have things both ways on one hand there are constant calls for increased services which require upgrades and more maintaince and on the other moaning about service disruption these upgrades and maintaince cause its a bit like our Mayor and road cones. A lot of our problems are as the result of electrication. Apparently diesel trains can travel through work areas. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the initial electrification however only luke warm on its extension to Pukekohe. I supported the AT plan for fitting battery to EMU’s for that section. These battery backup trains could be used to bridge work areas and total shutdowns could have being avoided. Until Kiwirail clearly commits to its desire to use electric locomotive for freight services I don’t believe any more sections of track should be electrified as low carbon alternatives are available for passenger services. Alternatives which could be used to keep services running in the event of the overhead having to be switched off. Lastly why can’t some of the surviving ADk, s be used to provide a skeleton service on one line of a double track section. However I think we have very arrogant management. New Zealand was a can do country Aotearoa not so much.

    1. Electrification of Auckland’s two main rail corridors is the continuation of electrifying the NIMT between Pukekohe and Frankton, Palmerston North and Waikanae and the ECMT from Hamilton to Tauranga. We need to think outside of the square when it comes to upgrading of the national rail network.

      Auckland region is not the only region in the country that has rail connectivity.

  15. No mention of grade separating all level crossings at the same time. No doubt many will require reforming tracks. Why isn’t this being done?
    Building a 3rd track beside the existing surely must also be an option for keeping lines open? And be useful in future for freight and express services?

    1. Grade separation will be designed to fit the (widened) rail designations. It still has to go through Notice of Requirement and Detailed Design, some land acquisition and funding. If it had been thorough all that already, it might have been possible.

  16. Many of us travel from Auckland to Sylvia Park to shop
    Train 18 mins
    Bus 1hr 15 mins
    There is no comparrison.
    Why can’t Eastern line trains run to Otahuhu then back up to Sylvia Park
    When the work has reached Sylvia Park then run the trains directly there while completing the rest of the work
    Surly Auckland Transport have got at least someone with an active brain in that organisation that can find solutions to this shutdown instead of just thinking a full shutdown is the only solution.

  17. “Greg says:
    November 17, 2022, at 11:19 am
    Yes, there will be plans. Internal meetings at AT will be happening about bus priority, and maybe some cycle lane projects also.”

    Thanks, Greg, for confirming there are plans to improve Newmarket access for people using Buses for public transport for Onehunga/Southern suburbs & Cycling. It is such a choke point for Buses & not use friendly/safe for Cyclists.

  18. What is proposed by KiwiRail is the perfect solution to kill PT in election year and thereafter. Cui bono?

    Maybe Peter Reidy was selected by the largely Ardern government appointed KR board to be the white knight? He has been very quiet compared to Greg Miller his predecessor.

  19. I think its time to get rid of AT, Kiwirail, heads should roll for this, its an absolute disaster!!! We have monkeys being paid alot of money, sitting in high places, yet we keep having to make backward steps!!!! When the extra line was put in during the electrification of the network, this should alll have been taken care of, with a future proof network, reliable and efficient for generations to come! But management, people sitting in high places making decisions, bad 1s at that, they should be gone, down the road JACK. Time to implement a seperate clark of works, to oversee everything, so things get done properly, 1st time. It all seems coincidental as though theres something suspicious going on here? Auckland council, NZ govt, what the he is going on!!!!! Sort your shit out!!! You put islands in the middle of roads, to slow traffic down, to get people to use PUBLIC TRANSPORT, YET YOU CANT EVEN SUPPLY THE PUBLIC TRANSPORT INTENDED FOR THE PEOPLE!!!! THIS IS JUST A JOKE, IM DISGUSTED. SACK THE LOT OF THEM!!!!

        1. I get Scott’s anger but it would help if he got his basic facts right. There was never an extra line put in during electrification.

          There is the 3rd main line project going on at the moment between Otahuhu and Wiri and as one of the tables Matt has in his post shows, the bit between Middlemore and Puhinui is likely to be done after that project is finished in 2024 so that there is an extra line through that area to help so maybe services will be able to continue through that area while the old lines are being fixed.

  20. is it a network, or a train line…

    I’m guessing other countries have more than one route.
    Hey – we could start laying more train lines. Is that a thing ?

  21. There is a very simple solution for this. All those who work in office roles at Auckland Transport and KiwiRail should not be allowed to take private transport to work. Let them all take public transport, which they can pay for themselves. Once the disruptions start you might see some action rather quickly.

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