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

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  1. Sounds like a good opportunity for a new PM to show how practical they are by backing their Transport Minister to fast-track the work and avoid waste.

    1. Satire? Same people in charge for all organisation’s involved, nothing changed, sadly delivery won’t improve.
      How many people are actually physically working on the tracks?
      24/7 repairs would be preferable, night work would soon pass an area giving minimal aggravation- similar to road resurfacing on main roads.
      The opportunity should be taken to at least triple track.
      If level crossings aren’t being replaced as part of these works (maybe too hard to complete the most difficult like St Jude St), tell us the schedule for replacement. And it should be done with quad tracking in mind.
      When RCF became apparent in 2019, why wasn’t this work done before rail replacement?

  2. Why are Kiwirail still working on other lines at weekends? They should focus all their resources on getting Otahuhu to Newmarket done and reopen faster

  3. There are now many underpasses in Auckland and it’s good to see another one coming.
    They are mostly short and lower cost than the often long winding bridges.
    I am wondering about the Middlemore station rebuild and when work will start.
    This is the last missing link of the important third line.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it till you mentioned underpasses and Middlemore station in the same comment. But probably not there is already an overbridge but I expect it needs to be modified. Every way I look at it there is still going to have to be a center platform I can’t see how the track work can be designed to avoid it but never say never I have being fooled before but I would have thought there is a tradeoff between the number of sets points and track failures. There is no work being done on new platforms at either Puhinui or Papatoetoe. I take that to mean there won’t be unless it’s a separate contract. So I am no better informed about how the third main will be operated than I was before the work started. Also of interest is massive concrete barriers around the passenger overbridge support at Papatoetoe. Fair enough a loose container could take the whole bridge out.
      Finally I am not in agreement with Matt’s idea of lumping a whole lot more work such as level crossing removal into the formation rebuild. He casually mentions building up or lowering the formation two or three meters if he had seen the length of time it has taken to build the third main formation up to the same level as the existing two tracks he may not be so gung ho, of course lowering the formation is easier.

      1. Thanks Royce.
        The third lines at Puhinui and Papatoetoe should be laid down soon.
        But I still wonder why not Middlemore!
        RNZ has today been discussing lack of maintenance on our roads.
        The sooner Kiwi Rail completes this project the better.
        Kiwi rail is increasing its share and the third line will give it a boost.
        There are about 30 new large industrial buildings around Otahuhu with access to rail.
        Several new sidings and connections.
        Unfortunately most people are unaware of the enlarged Kiwi rail hub at Southdown, the huge hubs at Hamilton and Palmerston north.

        1. With the development at Southdown, that is presumably the basis for the Mayor’s public focus on A2S (which has gone very quiet , lately…)

  4. Where are these speed restrictions? The only ones I know about are on the Western line, on which they have done nothing.

    Hopefully the rail crossing just get closed and we don’t spend hundreds of billions on rail trenches to make car slightly shorter.

  5. Matt’s suggestion to tackle the removal of level crossings at the same time as working on the track bed absolutely makes sense. It is a nonsense to try and have a rapid public transport system with street level crossings, as we do now. It may be public, but it will never be rapid, nor safe from collisions, if there are still street level crossings with cars and people…

    1. It would mad to not do both the formation and the crossings at the same time.

      The issue there has been zero talk about it, let alone funding talk. Kiwirail don’t care about anything except freight, AT are useless and can’t get KR to do anything, the council don’t have the means to control the issue, the current transport minister gets played and who knows what the next minister will be like. We could very easily end up with a situation where it is too late start addressing the crossings.

    2. Well, interestingly the Japanese do it differently. As rail frequency grows they just leave the barrier arms down longer and longer, creating much quieter streets around their networks. Drivers soon learn not to bother to cross the tracks much.

      Our problem is we fail to follow high level modeshift strategy and consider level crossings as a reason to not run trains well, instead we contine our bad driver-priority habits into lumping huge cost and poor performance onto what should be the top priority forms of mechanised transport: Rapid Transport and Rail Freight.

      At the very least level crossing removal should be funded largely from road budgets, but also proper priority should be applied to the management of the existing ones: ie proper priority to the higher value mode. Not ‘balance’.

      I note how pleasant and calm the streets around Baldwin Ave station are currently, grade sep these (at huge expense) and will become clogged and nasty ratruns like so much of AKL back streets. Unless addition calming is installed too.

      1. Re Baldwin, could we not just put pedestrian bridges/underpasses and shut the roads?

        Morningside Drive/Woodward Rd probably needs to remain a level crossing until being grade separated, but Rossgrove and Asquith would be fine diverting cars around. More traffic on the arterials, and probably Linwood Ave onto St Lukes Rd would require traffic lights (as it’s already fairly annoying), but the cost of grade separating and of leaving them as level crossings far outweighs the few car trips/rat running down Asquith being diverted onto the main roads.

        1. @Jak

          St Jude bridge over, and take houses on one of the two sides of the west side of the crossing for the bridge approach ramp. Connect it with a raised intersection with Donegal if possible, but Donegal might have to become a dead end. I don’t see a way of maintaining access to homes and bridging it without land acquisition, but I think it’s necessary, as the rail line can’t drop too much there. Then close the Chalmers St crossing, grade separate St George St.

          From there you have Portage Rd, which can be bridged, although access would need to be maintained for the stores on the North side, which looks like it might just be easier to buy the land.

          Close Fruitvale (too complex to be economical to grade separate).

          Trench Glen Eden as part of a suburban centre upgrade/redevelopment.

          Bridge Sherrybrook/trench the rail corridor (no feasible alternative despite the low traffic, as alternatives would require a new road/lots of land acquisition).

          Finally, grade separate Bruce McLaren (guessing bridge/building road and trenching plus some land acquisition/shifting business entrances).

          After that, you’re at Henderson, which is the planned stopping point for a lot of the trains.

        2. @Freddy

          A bridge at ST Jude? That will be a massive undertaking. Will it not be potentially too steep for busses and other heavy vehicles on the Avondale side? If anywhere was to get a trench, wouldn’t ST Jude be the spot?

          I assume the majority of crossing will need to close. If there is another crossing within 2 km, close it, build pedestrian crossing if needed.

          Glen Eden and Fruitvale should close and get an accessible pedestrian crossings. Sherylbrooke should close (Aquire land and attach to Titch place). Close everything else.

        3. @Jak

          They decided not to trench it for some reason when they redeveloped the line as part of DART. Could just be KR being dumb. Agreed about the bridge not working after looking closer, but the better solution is just to close it if they can’t trench it. Makes the roundabout so much nicer to deal with.

        4. Closing St Jude would improve so much, especially Avondale roundabout and shops, but also the NNR Blockhouse Bay Rd intersection, as well as calm residential streets, structurally redirect through traffic to the already upscaled bypasses north and south of there. Not to mention fixing an awful crossing on the new shared path.

          If AT did any grown-up and joined-up planning then this would have happened with the Tiverton-Wolverton super-sizing. Save cost and improve everything?; inconceivable to thew dimwits running AT.

  6. I don’t think there’s even funding available for removal of any of the crossings that the business case will prioritise. I agree that it makes sense, but the timing just won’t work out to incorporate both.

    100% agree that kiwirail / AT should be communicating the benefits of this, not just simply that it will ‘fix’ the neglect, but that more services or faster services will be able to operate.

  7. Typical bureaucratic nonsense from KR and AT. They absolutely should be coordinating so that these closures can be used to get other things done (like grade separation). Not only will that avoid further disruption, but it will save a ton load of money – something the mayor is supposed to be keen on.

    1. Any time a right-winger says they want to save money, it just means they want to waste money on their own pet projects and buddies. The right-wing in NZ are biased against public transport and towards roads; you watch them happily splurge $15-20 billion on motorways we don’t need without batting an eye.

  8. “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.

    What a joker. So they inherited it in a bad state 6 years ago and instead of doing the work and have good state now they were scheduling disruptions every weekend to do work on those bad sleepers and ballast just for fun and to make peoples life harder and now will be basically nullifying all that work by removing everything and starting from scratch? If they really inherited bad state then the way they managed it deserves some kind stupidity award of the decade.

    And forget about the crossing. Their style is to open the line and in a month close it again completely because ‘crossing must be done’ and we have to ‘bite the bullet’

    And of course you can tell the election is coming. Blaming previous goverment is commencing again. Disgusting. They forgot they were in power for 6 years already. Time to step down.

    1. The neglect and deterioration goes back to the 1980s with numerous redundancies, restructuring, privatisation all virtually destroying the organisation that maintained the track at a first world level. By the 1990s they were welding large sections of track without tensioning for heat, result large sections of the network were reduced to 40 km/h every summer. The previous government was still trying to reduce track staff as late as 2016 so yes they are highly responsible. It takes years to regain the capability/staff thrown away over the last 30 years.

      1. Zippo – about that welding of the lines – I’ve never really understood that, so perhaps you could help explain it to me. I mean, back in the olden days when they invented railways, they had rails that had breaks in them every few metres, which allowed for easy installation and also allowed for heat expansion. Then one day in the 80s someone said let’s weld all the tracks together end to end, and so when it gets hot and expands, – how the heck does that work? Why haven’t the tracks been buckling and busting out all over the place? What makes it work at all?

        1. And in the ’60’s the steam locos were making 100kph speeds on those jointed tracks. Something has got lost in the Progress Machine!

        2. So back in the day, we had jointed track. A fairly simple concept, but requiring a lot of maintenance. Every time a train passes over it, the hammering puts shock loading into not only the track, but the train passing over it. Which means the potential for damage to the ends of the rails, wheels, bearings and other bogie componentry. So, if you weld it together, you mitigate those issues, but generate the next set where if its too hot, it has nowhere to go, or if it gets too cold, then it stretches to the breaking point. So they determine a “neutral temperature” that would cause the rails to expand by that much, and stretch it till it’s that length, weld it together, which means that when the rail reaches that temperature it will not be stressed. So in normal service, the rails are under slight tension. The good thing is that our temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much compared to other parts of the world.
          But for it to work well the formation needs to be in good order, as this is what provides the side restraint for the rails. Which is probably why they are doing such an extensive clean out. The better the rail restraint, the more resilient the structure will be. This also effects speed because you rely on the actions of your sub base to keep your curves in check.

      2. Kiwirail is having to do a huge catch-up on asset management, now that the government has backed keeping the rail system working.
        You can’t plan finances and procurement to fix problems until you know the extent and nature of the problems, and you can’t understand the problems until you know what the nature, number and condition of your assets are in detail (not just “Lots, and pretty poor”).
        Kiwirail and government are doing a big job at pace while still building up the quality of their asset management.

        1. And after a trip to Kawakawa last week and seeing this I hope KR will have some staff left over to finish this work ;-

  9. Grade separation projects for level crossings take a lot of planning and design, as well as procurement and funding. That is under way according to previously-planned programmes and is not shovel-ready to just throw money at to do next week.
    Gowing underpass is shovel-ready, so this works fine. I don’t think improved station access at Glen Innes is ready, unfortunately.
    Footbridges can be installed without disrupting rail services, so it matters less when they are built. Closures just need a fence and a bit of signalling work, so it doesn’t matter at all when those are done, except for planning and constructing alternative routes. For examples, look at Normanby Road, Fenton Street and Porters Ave under CRL.

  10. With the opportunity of complete track closures, there would have been huge potential to do a swathe of other tasks to future-proof the railway system, e.g.

    1) Complete four-tracking from Wiri to Westfield
    2) Grade-separate all flat junctions
    3) Other measures to separate operation of freight and passenger rail
    4) Foot/cycle underpasses galore
    5) Slab construction for over-station development (e.g. Newmarket)

    There has been time to plan this – the crappy state of the railways has been known since 2021. As far as it is possible to see, none of this is happening. Pity.

    1. The amount of money required plus time to plan and design the works in your list would mean that the track upgrade shut downs would either have to be deferred for 5 years or more or extended for a similar period

      1. Grade-separating *all* flat junctions seems technically a bit tricky too. How would the tight Newmarket Triangle get grade-separated without significant demolition of surrounding properties (never gonna get that past the NIMBYS) or shutting down a key junction on the Auckland rail network for years?

        1. It should be possible to grade separate Newmarket by virtue of it having three tracks through the station. Not grade separating the junction itself so much as the tracks north and south of there. Like a weave between Remuera and Newmarket, run through on the easternmost track, then weave back between Newmarket and Parnell.

          You could separate westbound, Parnell bound and south bound trains that way.

    2. Unfortunately, you are right. But this should have been done as part of the CRL project, but has generally been ignored or overshadowed by other projects that the political masters of the time perceived to be a better use of the funds. So now we get this more expensive way of doing it, so we have to do the same job 4 times to achieve the result.

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