The first of Kiwirail’s big network shutdowns to fix the foundations on our tracks is now well underway with the Southern Line closed between Otahuhu and Newmarket. This is following on from the network wide Christmas/New Year shutdown, during which Kiwirail say that nearly 1,300 people working across 69 different sites achieved:
- More than 28,000m3 of ballast laid (stones that the tracks sit on)
- More than 4,600 new sleepers
- More than 2.6km of new rail track
- Installation of 16 complex structures, including turnouts and crossovers (which allow trains to move from one track to another)
Earlier this week Transport Minister Michael Wood toured some of the work with Radio NZ reporting:
Wood said the projects were part of the Government’s commitment to providing better transport options for Aucklanders, and defended the disruption they would cause in the short term.
“We can either bite the bullet and get on and make sure we get that maintenance done, or we could make it slower and drag it out over years and years,” he said.
Wood described the state of the rail network as “neglected”, saying the Government was working hard with KiwiRail and Auckland Transport to deliver the project, on time and on budget.
“Our government inherited a rail network that was in a state of managed decline, that had been left to go to rack and ruin by the previous government,” he said.
We’ve talked the works, the reasons behind it and the mitigation plans many times so I don’t plan on rehashing that. We absolutely need this work done and as soon as possible but I do think that the Minister and officials misjudged the frustration train users would feel by just announcing the plans with such short notice and such incomplete mitigation.
But while the disruption is, and will continue to be annoying, there are two things that continue to frustrate me about the works.
We have no clear outcomes
Ever since the work was publicly announced back in October, Kiwirail have stressed that the work will make the network making the network more resilient, for example the original press release said:
“Replacing the railway foundations will remove the growing number of speed restrictions that have been placed on the network in recent years and make it much more resilient.
“For Aucklanders it will mean more reliable trains, faster journey times, and is crucial to enabling the more frequent trains to come with CRL day one.”
The documents released about a month after the announcement also highlighted issues such as the worsening number of faults that were occurring.
Yet not once have we had any explanation of what a more reliable, faster and higher capacity network will mean for users. How many fewer faults can we expect, how much faster will trains be and how many more trains will it enable Auckland Transport to run.
Given the level of disruption that passengers are being asked to endure and the amount of money being invested to fix the network, surely some clear outcomes should be set and for transparency, Kiwirail required to report on them.
For faults this should surely be surely be easy. There are a lot of systems around the world that Kiwrail should be able to use as examples in order to set some good targets. It is a bit trickier for making the network faster though as that will also depend on how well Auckland Transport run the trains, for example they currently have long dwell times baked into their timetables.
But getting our trains faster should be a much bigger priority than it appears to be. Our trains are on average 5-10km/h slower than similar systems overseas and also slower than the original requirement for our electric trains – which was in line with those overseas systems. If we were achieving those originally required travel times we’d see the following on our existing network
- Swanson to Britomart – 43 minutes instead of 56 minutes (and this is before the CRL makes things even better)
- Papakura to Britomart – 41 minutes instead of 50 minutes
- Manukau to Britomart – 32 minutes instead of 37 minutes
We need both the Minister and the Mayor/Council to be demanding some clear and accountable outcomes from this project
It appears we’ll miss other opportunities to improve the network
If we’re going to be closing the rail network for months on end, I’m interested to know what else can be done at the same time. The big thing that springs to mind is progressing some of the much needed grade separation projects, most notably on the Western Line. It appears that the prevalence of level crossings is one of the big things that will hold back post-CRL frequencies on the Western Line due to concerns about how much the barriers will be down.
We do know that Auckland Transport are currently working on a business case for all the level crossings across the network, however that is not due to be completed till the middle of the year and even if funding for removing the level crossings was approved immediately, there’s likely a long period of design and possibly consenting that will be required. So even though Kiwirail aren’t due to get to the Western Line fixes till likely later next year, that may be too soon to include any major level crossing removal projects at the same time.
One concern is with that is there are number of places where perhaps raising or lowering the tracks by a few metres would make grade separation a lot easier and could be done at the same time, thereby helping to prevent future disruption as well as contributing to a faster, more reliable network and higher capacity network.
But those potential solutions may be ruled out simply because there will be too much disruption to network again and one of the things we don’t want to see is we just get through all this disruption then in a few years we have to repeat it all again as level crossings are removed.
That raises the question, should the works on the Western Line be held off so at least some of the key level crossings can be done at the same time?
I should note, we do know AT will be using the closer of the Eastern Line from March through to the end of the year to install a pedestrian underpass as part of a connection to/from the Glen Innes to Tamaki Dr Shared Path