Frustrated Auckland train commuters have faced disrupted services nearly every weekday for the past two weeks after a spate of track faults and other incidents.
There have been only two weekdays without unplanned cancellations and delays since trains returned to Britomart Station on January 22.
KiwiRail told 1News the rail network has faced an “unusually high” number of issues in the past month.
One of the incidents occurred after a train hit a person, near Meadowbank, while another was a result of a car crash above Remuera Station.
However, other incidents have been attributed to track faults, infrastructure issues, signalling issues, and operational constraints.
An Auckland Transport (AT) official told councillors yesterday the recent problems had left the agency “at wits’ end” and worried about lagging train patronage.
Public transport advocate Matt Lowrie said unplanned delays and cancellations to train services had been “appalling” this year.
“These disruptions have massive impacts — people with important meetings that they were trying to get to — whilst people trying to get home in the afternoons might be missing out on family time.”
Lowrie is the director of the advocacy group Greater Auckland.
He said: “It’s appalling that we’ve had the rail network closed for basically a month, and we come back, and it’s basically unusable.”
In mid-January, KiwiRail completed its annual shutdown of the city’s rail network for maintenance, which meant no trains could run for three weeks over the holidays.
AT officials were asked about the ongoing disruption at a council meeting on Thursday.
Executive manager of public transport Stacey van der Putten told councillors that the most recent issues had left the agency “really frustrated”.
“We’re kind of at our wits’ end, to be honest, because these feel like very familiar conversations that we keep having, and that’s not a good place for us to be,” she said.
“We’re working very closely with KiwiRail, understanding the constraints, but the thing is, we’ve had a lot of disruption on our train network for an incredibly long time.”
Speaking to 1News, Van der Putten apologised for the delays experienced by commuters but said infrastructure issues were outside of the agency’s control.
“We’re sorry that their experience is so poor,” she said.
“We’re doing our best to make sure that communication is as quick as efficient and that alternate services are provided, where viable.
“We are not sitting here doing nothing… we’re trying to improve our ability to respond but also pushing for resolutions on these constant issues. So, bear with us.”
She added: “Most of them are track-related or signalling, in terms of infrastructure-related, rather than other things, albeit we have had a few events that are outside of everybody’s control.”
More trouble on the tracks ahead?
While Auckland’s train patronage was steadily growing before the pandemic, it’s now significantly lagging behind ridership recovery as compared to buses.
Lowrie said the disparity was likely due to to the years of trouble on the tracks.
In 2020, the discovery of extensive “rolling contact fatigue” damage across the rail network required two years of urgent repairs amid regulator-imposed safety restrictions.
Several post-mortems were critical of what was described as an unsuitable maintenance regime, resulting from years of underinvestment while rail traffic only grew.
In one move to tackle the issue, the agency’s “rail rebuild” programme has replaced the foundations on significant stretches of the city’s rail network.
However, it came at the cost of lengthy shutdowns across parts of the Southern and Eastern lines last year. KiwiRail officials have promised the project’s planned stages this year can be carried out with less disruption.
There’s uncertainty about whether there’ll be enough money to complete the entire project, while the rebuild itself is not expected to finish until 2026 at the earliest.
Around that time, the $5.5 billion City Rail Link is also tipped to open, bringing with it two new underground stations and a doubling of potential train capacity.
Van der Putten said she was worried the ongoing disruption would continue to dampen Aucklanders’ perception of public transport for years to come.
“People will get to a certain point where they won’t try it again,” she said.
“And then when we get to the City Rail Link, it won’t be as successful as it could be, because people don’t have the confidence in it.”
She also warned that improved frequencies resulting from the project could be at risk if rail infrastructure issues weren’t fixed elsewhere on the network.
“The track faults themselves sit with KiwiRail — we’re trying to support them the best we can, in terms of understanding the situation, in terms of answering funding conversation. But it’s gone on for so long, that patience is worn down so much.”
Calls for more transparency
Lowrie said there was “no regular reporting” on the reduction of faults and therefore it was “very hard for the public to get an appreciation of just how bad the situation is”.
He added: “We need to be able to figure out — has there been an improvement as a result of the works? Will we see those faults reduced? And to what level should they reduce? What is an acceptable level?”
He called on Auckland Council to take a more vocal role in lobbying central government.
Last year, a brief disruption on Wellington’s rail network led to then-transport minister Michael Wood step in with a rapid review that also covered parts of Auckland’s network.
Lowrie said: “There was one issue in Wellington that lasted a couple of days, and that resulted in an inquiry — we’ve had years and years of disruption and mayhem.
“Wellington has one issue and suddenly everyone jumps up and down,” he later added.
The ministerial review concluded more needed to be done to prioritise passenger trains over freight in both the capital and Auckland. The authors also found more money would be needed to maintain the two city’s train systems as they grew in the future.
Van der Putten told 1News: “Both Wellington and Auckland need a long-term solution that’s reliable and provides consistency and reliability of the network.”
She continued: “We’ve been very patient with it, but we’re losing patience.”
‘Unusually high number of issues’ — KiwiRail
KiwiRail metros general manager Jon Knight said there had been an “unusually high” number of issues for train commuters in the past month.
“The vast majority of commuter services run as intended, with more than 125,000 services running in 2023. Most of the cancellations last year were due to weather events,” he said, in a statement.
“Unfortunately, there have been an unusually high number of issues on the network in the last month. Some of these are completely outside of KiwiRail’s control. For example, when Fire and Emergency asked us to turn off the overhead power on part of the Southern Line, effectively stopping trains, because of a gas leak.
“The power again had to be turned off when a vehicle crashed into the barriers on a road bridge across the railway line at Remuera while FENZ made the area safe.”
He continued: “Others are KiwiRail’s responsibility.
“There were some integration issues with the signalling system which was upgraded at Britomart over the Christmas break; and there were some separate track/signals issues that had to be investigated and repaired.
“This time of year also tends to see more speed restrictions on Auckland rail lines, due to heat and while work done at 89 different worksites over the Christmas break beds in.
“I appreciate how frustrating delays and cancellations can be for passengers.
He said KiwiRail was developing “a new, more proactive, technology-led” maintenance approach which would address “issues with the network before they become a problem”.
“KiwiRail has received funding to deal with significant historic issues across the network that affect performance and reliability, such as through the rail network rebuild, but there is still more that needs to be done.
“The metro funding model, through which Auckland Transport contributes the majority of maintenance costs as the main user of the network, is not effective and requires a review. We understand the Ministry of Transport has started this process.”
Track and infrastructure issues had been responsible for around 17% of cancellations last year, according to KiwiRail.
“More than $1.5 billion is being invested in upgrading the Auckland metro network and we are making good progress on a range of projects.”
Compiled from tweets by Auckland Transport Travel Alerts.
December 26 to January 14: No passenger trains are running in Auckland during KiwiRail’s annual network shutdown for maintenance.
January 14 to January 21: Planned closures for maintenance and upgrades – buses replace trains between the city’s central train station Britomart and Newmarket/Strand.
January 22: From around 7pm, a track fault means train services on all lines are experiencing delays of up to 20 minutes.
January 23: A person is hit by a train during the morning rush hour. Eastern line services are suspended between Britomart and Ōtāhuhu until 3pm. Other lines experience delays. At around 7pm, the Onehunga line services are suspended for the rest of the day.
January 25: A car crash near Remuera Station around 4pm means delays and cancellations across all lines during rush hour.
January 26: In the middle of the evening rush hour at 5pm, a rail signalling issue is reported at Newmarket. Delays and cancellations are expected on all lines.
January 27 to January 29: Planned closures for maintenance and upgrades – buses replace trains between the city’s central train station Britomart and Newmarket/Strand.
January 30: At 7am, a track infrastructure issue at Newmarket at the beginning of the morning rush hour means Southern and Western line trains operate at a reduced frequency until around 10am.
January 31: Just before 8am, a track infrastructure issue between Avondale and New Lynn means Western and Southern line trains are experiencing cancellations and delays.
February 2: At 8am, commuters are warned of delays of up to 20 minutes on the Southern and Eastern lines due to a gas leak reported at Wiri. Workers are also fixing a “malfunction in the overhead line electrification.”
February 3 to February 4: Planned closures for maintenance and upgrades – buses replace trains between the city’s central train station Britomart and Newmarket/Strand.
February 5: At 5pm, the Southern line is suspended between Ōtāhuhu and Papakura. Eastern line suspended between Ōtāhuhu and Manukau. Cancellations on all lines. Delays resulting from “operational constraints”.
February 6: Just before 9am, delays and cancellations from Britomart are expected on Southern, Eastern and Western lines, due to a track infrastructure issue.
February 7: At 6am, delays and cancellations expected to Onehunga line services, due to crew issues. At 7am, all Southern line services are suspended between Newmarket and Ōtāhuhu due to a track fault.
February 8: An update at 2pm reports multiple afternoon and rush hour services are cancelled due to a KiwiRail track infrastructure issue.