Rail rage has come to the Britomart. Well, almost. The businesswoman losing her composure is stuck on a train waiting to get into the station. She will, she tells the attendant, never darken the doors of an Auckland train again.
Other passengers, me included, share her sentiments. On too many days, our western line train slows to a halt outside the Britomart tunnel - or in the tunnel itself - while they clear space inside. But this day, a recent Monday, is something else again. We've come down the Newmarket line, via Parnell. Another train waits on the eastern line from Glen Innes. A couple of trains have come out of Britomart, so surely there's room inside ... but still we wait. For 27 minutes.
The attendants don't exactly ease passengers' frustration.
Why are we waiting outside the Britomart tunnel? "We are waiting for the red light to turn green."
What went wrong that day defied explanation. A train which broke down at Greenlane had some part in it. Other mishaps quickly accumulated. It was "one of those days", an Ontrack spokeswoman told me later.
The usual cause of delays outside Britomart is the tunnel itself. The Britomart station may be a marvellous asset, a catalyst for reviving passenger rail in Auckland, but it has an Achilles heel - the tunnel installed by the Auckland City Council before it was built has only one line in and one out.
Inside the terminus are five platforms. In the morning peak, trains come in faster than they can get trains out. And when trains leave, they have to go somewhere. The nearest "parking lot" for the passenger trains is at Westfield, near Otahuhu.
The bottleneck has become an issue since frequencies were improved to 15 minutes last July. What will happen when they boost frequencies to 10 minutes, with new rolling stock and longer, electric trains?
Giant strides are being made to upgrade the city's rail network. Project Dart, a $600 million, Government-funded programme, is full steam ahead upgrading infrastructure - double-tracking on the western line, new signalling and new and refurbished stations - ahead of the billion dollar-plus electrification of the network from Papakura to Swanson. ARTA, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority responsible for passenger transport, is pouring more money into stations on the southern and eastern lines. All up, it's the biggest investment in railways since the early-80s.
But commuters live with the here and now. So little was invested for so long that the revival is like following the career of injury-hit Shane Bond - you take the rough with the smooth.
That can mean noisy, rattly carriages with dodgy air conditioning and rudimentary seating. Or trains running late due to signalling failures or a breakdown. Or the "one lane bridge factor" - waiting while a train coming the other way negotiates a single-track section of the network. While double-tracking of the western line is gathering pace, the work itself brings delays. Things will get worse before they get better: Construction of a new station at New Lynn and double tracking between New Lynn and Avondale is expected to bring months of frustration. Like NZ cricket supporters, you've got to have faith. And things are much, much better for a passenger service which was just about extinct a decade ago.
In numbers carried daily, rail remains a small player compared to buses but bus patronage has peaked and buses have to share congested roads with commuters. Trains, in conjunction with buses and ferries, are the key to a meaningful mass transit system for Auckland. Rail patronage has grown from 2 million passenger trips a year to 6 million in five years. Without further investment, the network will soon reach capacity.
Since mad Monday, my train has been on time and whisked me into town from Kingsland in 17 or 18 minutes, no hiccups. That's quicker, and far less stressful, than a motorist can do at peak hour.
That's how it is most days. Signalling failures have been rare since Newmarket was upgraded last year. Progress on double tracking has increased reliability. And 15-minute frequencies at peak times have brought more and more commuters out of their cars.
But small things - like the scrub fire off Gladstone Rd which closed the entire network for an hour - can throw the schedule out for the rest of the day.
A new control room, deep inside Britomart, has improved co-ordination between service operator Veolia, network owners Ontrack (the Railways Corporation) - who control train movements from Wellington - and ARTA. A bank of screens provides pictures of trains entering and leaving almost every station. It's from here that staff can monitor station security and holler at wrongdoers over the loudspeakers. When a computerised network map is installed in a few weeks, staff will be able to pinpoint every train using GPS equipment.
This gives a better basis to respond when things go wrong, such as a breakdown, or when trains are running late.
"Very rarely is it the same two things," says Veolia's Stuart Anderson. "There's always some sort of variable.
"Generally when something goes wrong, there's a big domino effect - a heck of a lot of decisions need to be made quickly. You have to make your decision and live by it."
Veolia general manager Nick French says the new control centre, once fully commissioned, will put Auckland's monitoring and response capability on a par with Melbourne's. "[Then] it really comes back to infrastructure and vehicles and decisions about rolling stock."
* Geoff Cumming is a Herald senior feature writer who commutes from Kingsland station.