This is a guest post by reader Grady Connell. It was originally published (in October 2022) on Today FM.
Road closed ahead. It’s a dreaded sign to see during any journey on the roading network.
Seeing this sign usually means bumper-to-bumper traffic and a 10-minute or more longer detour winding through random back streets to get to your destination.
Now users of Auckland’s rail network are about to see ‘rail closed ahead’ signs, and face a detour lasting until at least 2025 as KiwiRail prepares to rip up the tracks and fix the foundation of the rail network, some of which dates back to the 1870s.
At 10:46am on Monday a combined press release came from KiwiRail (the company that owns the tracks and controls maintenance on the network) and Auckland Transport (the service provider which has been contracted to Auckland One Rail for the day-to-day operations).
The embargoed release announced a major rebuild of Auckland’s rail network beginning in 2023, following the usual Christmas/New Year works period lasting a couple of years.
When the news hit social media just after midday, public transport users got mad and rightfully so, with large swathes of the rail network to be closed for months on end and a rail bus offered in place.
We're meant to be encouraging Aucklanders onto public transport, yet we're closing most of the rail network. Eastern Line is closed for most of 2023.
Surely this isn't the only way we can do this? https://t.co/LV8wIQVMIy
— Damian Light (@damianlight) October 2, 2022
I have never known a public transport so organisation so happy to just unilaterally shut down parts of their network, with *no* consultation or warning.
Just a bafflingly poor decision. https://t.co/3jUnqDod0O
— Hamish Williams (@HamboNo5) October 3, 2022
The contempt for people who actually use the trains continues unabated https://t.co/t3xPV92DqQ
— Stephen (@hewligan123) October 2, 2022
Road users would be mad too if the Harbour Bridge was going to be closed completely, with only a leaky dinghy being the alternative offered.
I am a mega bus and train user whenever I can, so seeing a rail bus or facing a detour or disruption on my journey isn’t a surprise in the least. Even last night, hours after news of the closure broke, I had quite the journey.
So after two trips up the motorway and one down my service which was due at Smales Farm by 8:25ish has just pulled into the stop after a likely communications breakdown between Waka Kotahi, Auckland Transport and the bus Driver.
— Grady Connell (@TheGradyConnell) October 3, 2022
The work being undertaken is essential and has to be done. Due to years of under-investment and band-aid fixes, we have had to finally pull the pin and suck it up and get ‘er fixed.
But the closure promises to be tedious and frustrating. Instead of the electric trains that usually whizz across the city, users will be forced aboard buses that wind their way slowly through the back streets of Auckland to get to the stops outside the station.
It is going to be s**t. But the long-term benefits will be worth it. Unfortunately, short term, the pain of rail buses is what will tank passenger numbers and increase driving.
Rail buses just aren’t as cool as they sound.
They are usually the oldest, loudest, smelliest, surplus to requirements buses, that often have no air-con and are sitting in the back of the lot waiting for a call out for rail bus usage.
I travelled across the rail bus network in the summer of 2021-22 and while some tried to make light of the situation with funny destination signs, some of these buses were rough and tough.
I finally managed to get a photo of the Choo Choo I’m a Train! banner on the bus. pic.twitter.com/FWQpNrTPiI
— Grady Connell (@TheGradyConnell) January 30, 2022
If you are lucky, your driver will know where they are going and can work around the closures on the local roads. But more than likely you’ll get stuck in a traffic jam, make a weird detour or skip a stop, making your already long journey even longer.
If you own a bike that you usually use to make your commute easier or shorter, forget it. Leave it locked up at home – it’s not welcome on rail buses unless it folds up.
Dependent on a wheelchair? If you are lucky you may get a bus that can accommodate you and your chair, or can kneel or have a ramp, or you may be left waiting for a service that does.
AT has said there will be free mobility taxis for those who need them, but those forms of transport are in limited supply.
So, complaint over. What’s the quick fix then?
Direct rail buses
The routes for these closures do not need to stop right outside every station. Many people walk or are dropped off outside the station – there would be only a handful of journeys directly starting at the station platform. Several stations on the rail network aren’t directly on the main road, stops need to be moved nearby within a walkable distance along a route that works better for the rail bus.
Twitter user Peter N aka @AKLBikes has designed a workable alternative for the western line.
The change in rail bus route means we need bus lanes; this may also require removing parking along some roads. Removing parks is never popular but needs to be done along these routes to stay competitive with the existing rail network and driving
Twitter user Ben Ross queried pop-up bus lanes and AT said they will ‘consult’ on the idea… yet the rail network closure isn’t consulted on. The Spinoff’s Hayden Donnell summed it up perfectly.
right, so you're closing an entire rail line with no consultation but mitigating the effects of closing the rail line will be contingent on consultation
— Hayden Donnell (@HaydenDonnell) October 3, 2022
The pain of the closure doesn’t have to be in vain. We can have long-term gain from this short-term pain. We can futureproof our transport network. The bus lanes will help out with future rail network shutdowns and the expansion of faster local bus services.
Auckland can see four seasons in one day, so having appropriate shelter for the rail bus services is a must-have.
Auckland Transport needs to follow the example of its Wellington counterpart Metlink. It is currently upgrading its city centre bus station and has had to move stops, so has transformed shipping containers into shelters.
Wellington, Christchurch and Waikato all of have bike racks on their buses. But Auckland… zilch.
Not being able to take your bike on the bus has long been an issue on rail buses and on regular services AT has said it will continue to allow folding bikes on board but not normal bikes.
Kia ora, if you have a folding bike you will be able to take this on the buses. However, standard bikes are not allowed. This is because we need to maintain enough space for passengers.
— Auckland Transport (@AklTransport) October 3, 2022
The bike racks fitted on those buses in other regions are of a standard design and style, so retrofitting them onto the rail buses would be easy and a way to start the bike rack roll out on the Auckland bus network which is long overdue.
— Metlink Wellington (@metlinkwgtn) September 28, 2016
While I’m angry at the delays we will face with this shutdown, I’m glad the investment is coming to the rail network. KiwiRail is making the right moves to get the rail network future-proofed ahead of the City Rail link opening, but the 2020 shutdown hasn’t provided me with much hope that we won’t see another mass closure in 2025.
KiwiRail workers – I appreciate the hard yards that are about to begin after years of inaction and I hope you get a well-deserved break after.
For AT now is the time for you to pull up your socks and improve the rail bus network, so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot patronage-wise during this mega closure.
Rail buses are a pain. But they don’t have to be.