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.

Resident Access Only, Christchurch, NZ, one year after the big Earthquake with a great light in the restricted area.

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.

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.

Cars transported by boat across the harbour bridge.

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.

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.

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?

Rail buses

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.

https://twitter.com/AklBikes/status/1576756885130465280

Bus lanes

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.

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.

Shelter

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.

Bike racks

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.

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.

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.

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27 comments

  1. Hear hear to the suggestion that railbuses don’t need to go right up to the station. Actually I have believed for a long time that Railbus routes should be permanent, operating 24/7, as an adjunct to rail during the day, for those with mobility issues, as a night service after the trains stop, and at both times creating collective knowledge (for both passengers and drivers) of the Railbus route when intensive service is needed during a rail closure.

  2. AT once again demonstrating their absolute contempt for public transit users. I am tempted to think that they deserve everything Wayne Brown says he will do to them as they assisted him into the Mayoralty by dropping this announcement in the closing stages of the Local Body election campaign. The people who don’t deserve this poor service are the long suffering public.

    1. Both AT and WK have been very devious, opaque, anti business organizations. They are against families wanting to ride a bike to reduce costs for years. Just about every week they make unbelievable decisions such as the bus deviation at Botany, the many unconnected bikeways, the $800 million harbour bridge red herring, long delays to install a separate bikepath at Kinslgsland, failure to build more than 2km of bikeways a year,etc.

    2. To be fair, AT would have little to no say in the network closures. Kiwirail will do what they need to do, and AT has to suck it up and handle the mitigation measures.

      What AT needs to do, is in the above post, and has been mentioned many times on this forum.

      Bus lanes – All rail replacement routes need bus lanes. They do not need to be consulted on. They can be called trials / temporary works, AT has done this before, and road works are done without consultation. A simple letter drop to local areas explaining why parking is being removed (with a months or two notice) will suffice.

      Internally within AT I see teams battling it out for bus lanes vs cycle lanes. The active mode team won’t want bus lanes put on future cycle routes … So will be interesting to see how that plays out.

  3. Sadly, through no fault of its own, this blog over the last year has had to become a place of anger, frustration and despondancy. I long for the Auckland I was excited about 5 years ago, the one where great plans were in place, skyscraper proposals flying out the door and PT usage going up and up.

    It may return one day but I fear I will have left Auckland by the time that happens. Maybe time to change the name back to Transportblog lol 🙂

    1. I left Auckland over a decade ago because I couldnt spend any longer waiting for it to grow into a proper city. It’s no closer now than when I left.

  4. The rule is easy:

    Disrupt PT: no consultation required
    Improve PT: consultation required, multiple rounds
    Disrupt Cars: consultation required, multiple rounds, respect the loudest and angriest voices
    Improve Cars: no consultation required, blow out the billions of dollars and let the non-car users pay

    You can also replace PT with Bikes and that applies then also

    1. Funny how the $14 billion tram gets a pass but a $700 million highway is frowned upon. This isn’t a battle between cars and PT – bloated consultation panels and cost overruns are symptoms of the red tape that has become omnipresent in recent years

  5. The two worse places to be on a rail bus at least on the Southern and Eastern lines is passing through Newmarket and Slyvia Park. However both are important stops for passengers especially on weekends. The express rail replacement bus to Puhinui via Newmarket has being useful. Has any thought being given to extending it to the Manukau station. After all there are bus lanes between these two stations. From Manukau we have the 33 which passes all stations except Homai to Papakura along Great South Road. Do we need rail buses past Manukau if the 33 route is improved. There have being express Papakura Manukau bus via the Motorway in past shutdowns. Looking at how the Eastern and Southern trains operate I wonder if we need an express bus between Manukau city and Newmarket which operates via the motorway. This could operate whether the trains are running or not.
    Ideally we would have an express train but I can’t see that happening but an express bus would be a reliable backup for the trains.
    But I really don’t know what can be done about Slyvia Park. If I couldn’t reach it by train I would never go there.

    1. If it just stopped on the Mount Wellington highway would that help much? I wonder if centre bus/ truck lanes through the motorway interchange could work? Regig the other lanes.

  6. How good are those container bus shelters?!! Looks like they not only do the job they are supposed to do (protection from the elements) I bet they cost a fraction of what the crappy ad glass houses do and don’t need expensive glass replacement every other week.
    Even better they can be quickly relocated if needed.
    I vote we bulk buy them and use them going forward in future.

  7. The thing is, a replacement bus service for Baldwin Avenue that doesn’t go somewhere close to Baldwin Avenue is of zero use to would-be passengers for that station. If I wanted to walk ten minutes to the nearest stop, I’d use the number 22 bus.

    1. Re: Peter N’s Western Line route suggestion:
      The route capacity is 230 seated per train unit X 2 =460 seated. That’s about 10 full buses.
      6 services at peak = 60 bus equivalents: One per minute.
      No way are they going to do that!

      But if you split that route into three overlapping services with bus lanes, and halved the capacity to 30 buses (since inferior service kills demand); it might be okay, right?

  8. The underpasses at Parnell and Orakei Dr are done. Work from Westfield and through to Penrose is well under way.
    But 2 sections, both about 200 m, of the third line one just south of Middlemore station and the other just south of Papatoetoe station have been taking months to build as both have banks that require a concrete walls and drainage installed.
    So the third line all the way from Wiri to Westfield is mostly built except at Middlemore Station where an existing platform must be removed and replaced with a 2 sided platform. The overbridge will need to be replaced by a longer bridge.
    But there is no sign of any work beginning on the station. It must be done to comlete the important project.
    This is a priority. Is any organisation holding up this work? I heard a rumour. A new platform could be built in weeks or years. The third line is very important to Kiwi Rail and our economy.

    1. The underpass at Parnell is done already? Or do you mean the one which makes you exit the station, walk 200m one direction, use the underpass and walk 200m the other direction to tag on again? If not, that would be great news!

    2. And the works which seem to have taken Ages at Newmarket are now complete for the new service from Henderson to Otahuhu ;-

  9. The ferries are just as bad at the moment, services constantly cancelled without any real communication. The so called real time electronic boards are laughable. Two Devonport peak ones cancelled this morning, the Birkenhead ferry morning time changed to 8.30 so you now arrive in town just before 9. What sort of scheduling is that for people who work a typical day?
    It’s all completely crap

    1. Look at the AT twitter for ferry cancellations. “Plan ahead” – 7.30am Half Moon bay cancelled by a tweet at 7.47am?

  10. Yea it is going to suck big time.

    Good thing AT has built a bike network…oh wait. At least they are going to beef up the bus network with CATR funds… oh wait.

  11. Very disappointed with the lack of urgency or understanding by various organisations on how outages impacting the customers / commuters… really not acceptable.
    A recent example from Japan showed that thy managed to extend the platform in one of their busiest lines in 2 days… the patronage of the station is over half million people. Can AT and KiwiRail take a leaf out of Asian countries?

  12. You will have marveled at the news, today, of lane closures on the Auckland Harbour Bridge through late March. What I do not understand is why no call and incentives for pooling, rather than just telling people to go via Highway 18 and 16 which already have their own challenges.

    1. Wow. I thought lane closures on the AHB were a no-no. Doesn’t the future of civilisation depend on them always being available for cars? Isn’t this why liberating a lane for cyclists and pedestrians has always been refused?

      1. The prime time radio commercial I heard might have stated the times that the work was to be done, but it was not a strong part of the message.

        1. And tonight the South bound lanes were all closed tonight from Otea Valley , Albany through to Upper Harbour Drive .

  13. Is there any reason kiwi rail could not work two 10 hour shifts so that the track upgrde work could be completed in half the the time?

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