The Wellington rail network has been the feature of a couple of major news stories over the last few days, one good – and one not so good.
The not so good news – the network
Firstly, today Wellington rail users are getting a very small taste of what it’s like to be a rail user in Auckland, an hors d’oeuvre of rail disruption if you will, after Kiwirail announced on Friday afternoon that speed restrictions will be placed on all lines and fewer trains would be able to run because they haven’t been able to check the network.
Trains to and from Wellington will be running more slowly in May due to vital KiwiRail track evaluation safety equipment being out of action.
From Monday 1 May, a 70km/h speed restriction will be in place. This will limit train speeds and frequency, requiring Metlink passenger services across Wellington to operate to a reduced timetable.
“Passenger trains running across the Wellington region will be affected – limiting the number of services that can be run. This will be hugely disruptive to many and we apologise for this unplanned inconvenience and the late communication.
“To comply with engineering standards, every four months we run a Track Evaluation Car across the Wellington network, which makes very exact measurements of the tracks – important for trains to operate safely. It is a highly specialised machine that inspects rail lines across the country, doing the kind of fine detailed work that cannot be done by our staff using hand-held equipment.
“Due to unforeseen technical issues with the Track Evaluation Car, we have been unable to undertake the necessary inspections due on the Kāpiti Line by the start of May. The machine also needs to assess the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa Lines by 7 May. As a result, these lines will no longer be compliant and we need to put temporary speed restrictions in place to meet our regulatory requirements. It’s similar to the warrant of fitness on a car expiring.
“We’ve been using this machine in Wellington three times a year, for many years, without disruption. We are working as quickly as possible to repair the Track Evaluation Car in Auckland and get it to Wellington to carry out the inspections. It could take up to three weeks to remove the speed restrictions, but if we can do it faster, we will.”
There is only one Track Evaluation Car in New Zealand and it is used to assess rail lines across the country. Assessments using the car are a requirement under the Wellington metro Safety Case, which is regulated by Waka Kotahi.
Greater Wellington Regional Council, which is responsible for public transport services, is understandably upset. Though the mention of it being an Auckland-based issue is particularly unfair, especially given the number of times issues with the Wellington-located train control centre have caused the entire Auckland network to be shut down, not to mention how they contribute to daily delays.
A KiwiRail equipment failure in Auckland is forcing Metlink to run fewer passenger rail services across the Wellington region during May.
KiwiRail’s one-and-only specialist rail track evaluation car, which measures tracks so trains can operate safely, is broken and inspections due on the Kāpiti, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa lines are overdue – making them non-compliant. Without compliance, KiwiRail has introduced temporary speed restrictions.
Greater Wellington Chair Daran Ponter says KiwiRail’s safety equipment failure shows an abysmal lack of accountability and management.
“To be clear, this is a monumental failure by KiwiRail. The poor maintenance of this essential piece of equipment is holding the entire North Island’s rail network hostage. If ever there was a perfect example of a lack of prudent management and accountability for critical rail infrastructure in this country, here is exhibit A.
“This is going to impact hundreds of thousands of rail passengers in Wellington alone; it’s going to harm tourism, and it’s going to put a strangle-hold on the freight industry using rail and ferry connections. It’s simply not good enough”.
Greater Wellington and Metlink learned of the equipment failure late on Thursday (27 April).
“It’s not clear how long KiwiRail have known about this but to only give Wellington three or four days’ notice before the restrictions are in place is simply ludicrous. It’s put significant pressure on Metlink staff to roll out new timetables, our operator Transdev to re-roster staff, and our rail and connecting bus passengers – whose lives will be tipped upside down,” says Cr Ponter.
The surprise news has clearly resulted in some pressure from politicians, with reports Kiwirail bosses have been called to the Beehive to explain. This is likely in part because it risked overshadowing the government’s Saturday announcement (below). It seems to have sparked action: on Saturday Kiwirail released a new statement saying they’re now getting the Track Evaluation Car fixed sooner.
“Our mechanical teams re-lathed the wheels of our specialist Track Evaluation Car (TEC) last night and are now in the process of reattaching monitoring equipment to the wheels.
“This means the TEC can leave our Auckland workshop early tomorrow morning and travel down the North Island Main Trunk Line to Palmerston North by tomorrow (Sunday) night.
“On Monday evening we will begin track assessments on the Kāpiti Line as it travels from Palmerston North to Wellington, with infrastructure teams ready to address any track issues found. We are focussed on repairing any track as quickly as possible, so are bringing in additional infrastructure teams from Palmerston North to support our Wellington crews.
I guess the good news here is that at least the disruption should be relatively short-lived, unlike the years of disruption Auckland has to deal with.
This is of course not the first time Kiwirail have sprung surprise slowdowns (or shutdowns) on passenger services, with Auckland currently bearing the brunt of a second round of major disruption in just a few years.
It really raises the question of just how seriously Kiwirail take passenger services in New Zealand. We’ve long believed that they don’t because they’re primarily a freight company.
Given these issues have been happening so frequently and the same people at Kiwirail have been involved for years, at what point does accountability kick in? In the past, I’ve heard from multiple people with experience running systems overseas that these kinds of issues would never be tolerated, and certainly not multiple times over. Meanwhile, multiple regulators think the organisation prioritises commercial (freight) outcomes over safety.
It seems that the biggest impediment to improving rail in NZ is Kiwrail itself.
The good news – more regional trains
Last week we ran a guest post about how the government needs to invest in new regional trains for the Lower North Island – and on Saturday they did just that.
A fleet of 18 brand new trains for Wairarapa and Kapiti Coast:
- Increase capacity by approximately 1.5 million trips
- Time savings of up to 15 minutes on the Manawatū line
- Reduce over half a million tonnes of emissions
- Build resilience into the network
- More reliable, efficient, and safer train services are coming for Kapiti Coast and Wairarapa commuters as the Government invests in a fleet of 18 new trains, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson and Minister of Transport Michael Wood have announced.
“This initiative to co-fund a fleet of 18 four-car trains and upgrade rail tracks will strengthen public transport links for those traveling or working in and out of Wellington from Manawatu or the Wairarapa. It will also support growth along these rail corridors as well as boost productivity for the regions and the country as a whole.
“The new trains will operate using a combination of electricity wires, batteries and fuel, lowering our carbon emissions and making New Zealand less reliant on volatile international energy markets,” Grant Robertson said.
The government says the total level of funding is currently confidential due to commercial considerations. However, Stuff reported in March that the original business case was for $874 million but included 22 trains.
The current announcement is only for 18 trains, which does mean services won’t be quite as high as GWRC had originally hoped. But presumably it could be easy to extend the order, or have a second tranche at a later date.
It would also be good to have a version that can run on the Upper North Island, such as for Te Huia. I also wonder if during the tender process we might see the trains evolve to be only electric and battery-powered.
Overall, this is great to see – although there is one part that does annoy me. Stuff also reports:
The Government is expected to provide 90% of the funding for the trains, as it had when trains were last purchased for Wellington, and both the Wellington regional council and Horizons Regional Council would provide the remaining 10%.
Why is Wellington only having to pay for 10% of these trains and the infrastructure to support, them when Auckland is having to pay 50% for the City Rail Link and has been paying for 50% of its electric trains?