$21m 'wonderful' news for rail safety

By Mathew Dearnaley

Cricket great Chris Cairns was quick to the crease yesterday in welcoming a multimillion-dollar rail safety funding announcement by Auckland Regional Council.

Cairns, whose sister Louise and three others died in 1993 after a truck ploughed into their passenger train, said $21 million of council money to improve level-crossings would be vital to Auckland's rail upgrade project.

"It's wonderful news - as society grows there's a need for new rail infrastructure and I'm pleased to see that safety is not being overlooked," he said at the Normanby Rd level-crossing in Mt Eden, one of six identified by the council as candidates for new bridges or tunnels to separate trains from cars and pedestrians.

Council chairman Mike Lee announced the funding at the opening by Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen of a $140 million project to sink duplicated rail tracks beneath road traffic along a 1km trench through the heart of New Lynn.

The Government is paying $120 million through Ontrack, and Waitakere City Council will contribute $20 million to the trench, as well as $44 million to associated improvements around New Lynn with help from development levies and potential subsidies from Land Transport NZ.

Mr Lee described the trench and associated bus-rail transport interchange as "the mother of all grade separations". He spoke of the need to safeguard crossings throughout the region and prepare for quieter and more frequent electric trains.

His organisation had allocated $21 million in its draft annual plan as "seed" money to help city and district councils ensure the 31 public road crossings on the core rail network between Swanson and Pukekohe and eight others on the soon-to-be reopened Onehunga branch line could cope. That would include bridges or tunnels in some cases, and the closure of small suburban streets in others.

First up will be design funding of $2.8 million in 2008-09 to help councils determine the best solutions for their crossings, before they make subsidy applications to Land Transport NZ.

Mr Lee said although his organisation had no direct responsibility for roads or rail-track spending, it was offering money refunded by the Government from early duplication work on the western rail line.

"It's not going to be spent on rugby," he said in reference to pressure from Auckland City Mayor John Banks to use much of a $34 million surplus on upgrading Eden Park.

The council also intends spending $12.5 million on a railway station to be built in the New Lynn trench, about $5 million less than requested by the transport authority on behalf of Waitakere City.

* Four people have died in rail crashes this year, including a truck driver who hit a freight train at a crossing in Canterbury yesterday. That compares with 11 deaths last year, 18 in 2006 and 17 in 2005.

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