Who says public transport sucks? In praise of the train

By Greg Bruce

Who says public transport sucks? Greg Bruce on the joys of the train.
Greg Bruce. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Greg Bruce. Photo / Brett Phibbs

When my wife and I bought our first home in Glen Eden, last year, our fear
of borrowing a phenomenal amount of money we will never repay was tempered by the fact that our new home was a nine-minute walk from the Glen Eden train station.

The train was something solid to hold on to in this property market of candyfloss.
Real estate agents, the city's most important people, will tell you, and probably already have, that buying property near a train station is a fantastic investment. Once the city rail link is completed, people living a short walk from train stations on, say, the western line, will more or less be able to name the price they want for their already overpriced properties.

When we bought our house, electric trains had just come on line, and the proposed city rail link was promising at some unspecified point in the future to cut travel times to the central city by nearly half. I fantasised a future in which my daughters — by then grown into demanding primary school age materialists — and I would jump on the train on a Saturday morning and, in about half an hour, be seated in the Vector Arena for some awful Disney-infused spectacular.

At first, because both my wife and I worked at home and were weighed down by our babies, the importance and value of the train was mostly hypothetical, but then I got a full-time job in the city and it became concrete. I had never before in my life had a regular train commute, and I fell hard for it, the whole of it, from the time I left the house just after 7 until the time I returned home, just after 6.

Unlike the equivalent walk to a bus stop, the walk to the train is devoid of anxiety, because arrival and departure times are almost flawlessly accurate — trains on the western line run on schedule 97 per cent of the time — and the long, loud, warning dings at the level crossing give plenty of time to run if an error has occurred in one's departure time.

From the time I get on board, I know the train will get me to Britomart 41 minutes later, no matter how clogged the Northwestern Motorway and assorted arterial routes, no matter how many passengers are on board, no matter how heavy the rain.

The train's sense of certainty and predictability suits my temperament, which tends to the anxious, and I arrive, relaxed and happy at my office at the same time every morning. Over the following hour, I watch and listen while my colleagues straggle in complaining about the traffic, the absence of carparks, the unpleasantness of the bus. I sometimes offer them a smile of the utmost smugness. More often, I ignore them.

The Spanish-made trains are so quiet, so comfortable and smooth, their stainless steel outer shells providing a secure case for the womb-like warmth and comfort of their fresh, modern air- conditioned interiors, which will ultimately disburse an amniotic flow of more than 700 passengers into the futuristic light and concrete of Britomart.

For too long, trains chugged filthily, dieselly, unloved and unpopular, along the axes of this great sprawled city. Now they glide silently, electrically, comfortably, environmentally soundly, punctually and frequently. Trains are the future.

In the last five years, the number of people taking train trips in Auckland has increased by 70 per cent. Over the same period, bus use has increased an irrelevant 14 per cent.

It's impossible to know for sure, and in fact this is pure unfounded conjecture, but it's likely that this massive, disproportionate growth in train use will continue.

Just a couple of months ago, the frequency of trains increased so that if you now miss a train on the western line in the morning or evening, you'll only wait 10 minutes for another. Once the city rail link is completed, frequency will likely increase again. It's possible we could reach the point where we complain about not being able to just turn up to the station and walk directly onboard like some kind of modern pharaoh.

I leave the house at the same time each morning and I walk back in the door at the same time each evening. If you'd asked a young me if I would ever find this sort of predictability attractive, I would have said no, but that's because I was a young idiot. Predictability is so under-rated.

In autumn this year, during that long, warm fade of summer, I collapsed on the train. I had never collapsed before and I was greatly frightened. It was the only time I'd had to stand on the train all the way from Glen Eden to the city. For some reason, Auckland Transport had put on a short train at a time of high demand. That's okay. I don't blame them for what happened. Things can't always go to plan.

I could see the collapse coming from several minutes away, the steady whiteout of my vision and the slow failure of my hearing, the closing out of the world. I thought about asking someone if I could take their seat, but I still appear relatively young and vital and I didn't want to seem rude.

I managed to get down on my knees before complete sensory shutdown. Without wanting to be too dramatic, I assumed I was dying. Death was on my mind. My mother had died two weeks before.

As my world collapsed inward, I felt hands on me, lifting me back up, I sensed the gathered mass of warm bodies clearing. Somebody stood to allow me to sit. A woman's voice soothed me, gave me instructions, told me to keep my head down between my legs, to not try to sit up. This was crucial, this permission she gave me to not be all right. I wasn't all right.

The woman gently criticised the short train.

"It's too hot," she said. "I don't know what they were thinking." A man rubbed my back. Somebody else collected my belongings and put them under my seat. People, I thought, get too much criticism for being awful.

You are probably aware, as I have become aware, that the terms in which I am talking here about the train — dependability, comfort, hope for the future, kindness — are the building blocks of love.

We arrived at Britomart on schedule. The train doesn't stop just because it seems that life might. The woman asked me if I would be all right. I thanked her and told her I thought so, which was a lie. I didn't want to be rude. I stayed on the train for a while and then sat on a seat outside Britomart for an extended period, while everybody else disappeared, to their offices and appointments, predictably, inevitably, on time.

- Canvas

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