Hamilton – Auckland rail service – another step closer

The introduction of a Hamilton to Auckland commuter rail service took a major step forward after Waikato region council leaders and MPs joined a KiwiRail Silver Fern unit on a pilot trip from Hamilton to Auckland this morning.

The KiwiRail Silver Fern which has undergone a comprehensive refurbishment is proposed as the best option to undertake the two trips up – two back weekday service.

Waikato regional leaders led by WRC chairman Peter Buckley and joint working group chairman Cr Norm Barker were accompanied by elected representatives of all the concerned Waikato District Councils and Hamilton City Councils.  Plus local MPs David Bennett (National) and Sue Maroney (Labour) and of course the Campaign for Better Transport activitists who campaigned fiercely to put the Hamilton service on the political agenda.  I was invited to join them – and with PT expert Darren Davis of Auckland Council travelled down to Hamilton by bus last night to catch the Silver Fern which departed Hamilton’s Frankton Station at 8am this morning.


Campaign for Better Transport members and various politicians as the ‘Waikato Trains Now’ campaign is about to leave the station (photo Darren Davis)

I was asked to give the passengers a peptalk on Auckland rail. Here it is:

Silver Fern Hamilton to Auckland trip, Friday 12 August 2011

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be on board the Silver Fern today. I would like to acknowledge Cr Norm Barker, Chair of the Hamilton to Auckland Rail Working Party and all the dignatories (read out).  Special acknowledgement of the tireless work of two Hamilton rail activists in particular Cr Dave Mcpherson of Hamilton City Council and Jon Reeves (now in Switzerland) of Campaign for Better Transport.

As you know, I am strong supporter of rail and am proud to be able to play a role in the revival of a commuter rail service between our two cities.  A similar service, known as the Waikato Connection did operate a single weekday return trip between Hamilton and the old Auckland Rail Station from June 2000 until October 2001.  At the time it was cancelled, it was carrying 129 passengers per trip – with most boarding at either Pukekohe or Papakura.

Interestingly back in September  2001 (10 years ago) when I found out that the Waikato Connection was about to be withdrawn at a meeting of the the ARC Transport Committee I questioned the then ARC transport planners about the Waikato train patronage levels. They told me that they did not know, as the then-owners KiwiRail/West Coast Rail had told them the passenger numbers were  ‘commercially sensitive.’  So I said ‘why don’t you just go down to the station and count them?’  However they were not especially amenable to that advice – so I went down to the old Auckland Station, with a borrowed new-fangled digital camera and got on board – (and it was the same Silver Fern train prior to the excellent refurbishment) to Papakura – and we did the counting and interviewing of passengers and train staff and so on.  That’s when I first met our train manager today Fiona.  I well remember that the Waikato Connection train staff were pretty emotional and upset that evening – as the Silver Fern Geyserland service was also about to be retrenched –  but Fiona – 10 years on we are back – and the lesson is – never give up hope.

Unfortunately I was unable to convince my conservative colleagues back in 2001 to help save the Waikato Connection and the company retrenched it.

Riding the ‘Waikato Connection’ back in 2001 with then TranzRail staff. On my left train manager Fiona.

But the important thing to note about the old Waikato Connection is that this service provided the first commuter rail connection between Pukekohe and Auckland.  At that time 46 people travelled on the Waikato Connection train from Pukekohe to Auckland – today there are 460 passengers boarding at Pukekohe and 20 return weekday services between Pukekohe and Britomart.

Rail has taken huge strides in Auckland.  Less than 20 years ago, there were barely one million rail passengers per year in Auckland and the system was on the verge of being shut down. Less than one month ago, on 29 July, Auckland reached 10 million rail trips, or ten times the figure of twenty years ago. Over 1 million of that increase was between 2009 and 2010 alone.  And the rate of patronage is accelerating. June’s patronage this year was 24.6 per cent greater than June 2010.  We are now looking at increases of one million passengers every year!

From a rusting rundown system facing shutdown, we have moved to a dynamic network that is becoming increasingly integral to the life of Auckland.  For example, last Saturday saw more than 16,500 people moved to the Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park by train. This was 31 per cent – nearly one third – of the record 52,000 crowd. When combined with the 7,600 people who caught a bus to the game, 46 per cent of the crowd came on public transport. Just a few years ago, that sort of figure would just be unimaginable.

And key centres in Auckland are increasingly being connected to the rail network. Sylvia Park got its very own rail station in 2007, fully funded by the mall operator. Passenger rail services resumed to Onehunga in September last year, after a 37 year absence.   Now Onehunga reminds me somewhat of the Hamilton service.  Re-opening the Onehunga Branch Line was a personal crusade for me – and CBT – for many years, and for a time there was quite a bit of official opposition to it.  But it has succeeded beyond even my expectations.  Since it re-opened in September last year the Onehunga Branch Line has carried nearly 600,000 passenger trips and that’s with only 30 min services weekday – and only hourly services on weekends.  We can project over a full year that Onehunga could carry an astonishing 7% of the total patronage for Auckland – and with increased frequencies even up to 10%.

Apart from weekday working commuters Onehunga service also puts Auckland popular outlet mall, Dress Smart, within easy walking distance of rail for weekday/weekend shoppers.  There is plenty of potential still there.

Next February sees the opening of a new rail line and passenger rail service to Manukau. And later next year work will begin on constructing new railway station in the thriving, historic inner-city suburb of Parnell.

Britomart Station now has 25,000 passenger movements every weekday, up from less than 7,000 in 2004.

The Auckland rail system itself is being rebuilt from scratch. Effectively, all that remains of the previous rail system is the rail corridor itself and structures such as bridges and tunnels. We are two-thirds of the way through the station upgrade programme and you will be able to clearly see the difference between upgraded and yet-to-be upgraded stations as we travel into Auckland. A state of the art signalling system is being installed, including automatic train protection – a New Zealand first.  And of course, the network is being electrified -which will allow faster, quieter trains able to carry many more passengers than at present.

What this means is that for the past ten years, and for the next two years, Auckland’s rail network has been a continuous construction site.  KiwiRail has likened this to renovating your home while the residents are still home and increasing numbers of visitors come to stay.

So Auckland’s rail system is facing multiple challenges, primarily from its own success.  Passenger demand is running ahead of supply, meaning an on-going demand for additional rolling stock and more frequent trains.  As soon as more supply is added, demand quickly swells to absorb the increased supply.  Overcrowding on trains is becoming an increasing issue.  The recent extension of remaining station platforms for six-car trains and the introduction of another five carriages to the fleet (the last of the carriages purchased by the ARC in 2009) has alleviated the issue somewhat, in the short term at least.   That’s all the carriages we have left – so we desperately need the new fleet of EMUs to arrive on schedule in late 2013.

Something else we need is the City Rail Link or CBD Rail Tunnel.  Britomart, once famously derided by a former Mayor of Auckland City as a “glorified train garage at the bottom on Queen Street,” will exhaust its peak train slots in February next year with the introduction of 10-minute peak train frequency on the Western Line and the addition of the Manukau Line to the urban rail network. The City Rail Link is needed as a matter of urgency which would free up three platforms at Britomart for inter-urban rail service, including service from Hamilton.

It is ironic that Britomart’s very success means that, in the near-term at least, any commuter rail service will need to use The Strand, using platforms from the old Auckland Station which closed in 2003.  However, I believe that The Strand can work as a station with a dedicated bus connection to the City Centre. Back before Britomart opened, over 400 passengers transferred from trains to buses at the old Auckland Station every morning peak period to travel to Queen Street and Karangahape Road.

One advantage of using The Strand is that the costs of getting this service up-and-running can be kept down and the service, with its attendant infrastructure, built up over time as demand increases and funding becomes available.

Finally I believe the Auckland Spatial Plan now underway, provides an opportunity for the Waikato Councils, led by Waikato Regional Council to support the strategic approach of ‘necklace development’ or planned expansion of townships between Auckland and Hamilton – along the North Island Main Trunk Line.  Much of this future growth I believe, could take place within the Waikato region.  Therefore the concept of a Hamilton rails service is not only an attractive idea in itself, but looking to an electrified rail future could be the first step in a major reorientation of growth and development of the Auckland region and the northern Waikato.

I look forward to sitting around the table later today and discussing how we can move this important project forward.” 

Tuakau rail campaigners attempt to ‘stick up’ the Hamilton to Auckland pilot train this morning

KiwiRail Silver Fern at Hamilton Station (Frankton) about to depart on ‘proof of concept’ trial trip to Auckland (photo Darren Davis)

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