Auckland's long-awaited $1 billion rail electrification project is back on track, under Government funding approval to buy a fleet of zippy and low-polluting new trains.
After keeping rail passengers in suspense for eight months, Transport Minister Steven Joyce yesterday announced the Cabinet had approved $500 million for electric rolling stock to start running in 2013.
That is on top of a commitment of $500 million the Government inherited from Labour to electrify Auckland's railway tracks out to Papakura and Swanson, and will include the purchase of up to 114 electric multiple unit (EMU) railcars.
These will be able to accelerate and brake faster than the diesel units they will replace, potentially allowing 10-minute service frequencies and costing less to run.
But the Auckland Regional Transport Authority may still have to lease up to 13 electric locomotives to pull existing refurbished British SA carriages along the southern line.
Although the authority originally sought 140 railcars, Mr Joyce said the proposed units would be longer and the overall fleet capable of carrying an equivalent number of passengers.
They are expected to be more cost-effective and efficient, although numbers and dimensions remain to be finalised.
"The consensus of all the boffins is that they will do the job," Mr Joyce said.
"I think it's good for Auckland and underlines the commitment we have made to not just roading budgets but to the trains - my view has always been that we have to use all the corridors we have got effectively if we are going to keep Auckland moving."
A multi-agency working party of officials alarmed regional leaders in August by proposing just 75 electric railcars, which although measuring 24m instead of 20m envisaged for a larger fleet, would have reduced capacity.
That followed their identification of $151 million of potential extra spending elsewhere in the electrification project and the region's $600 million basic rail upgrade.
But Mr Joyce rejected their recommendation and ordered them to maximise the number of railcars obtainable within a $500 million funding cap.
He said yesterday the overhang had been reduced to $45 million of essential spending, much of it for lengthening station platforms, and he wanted officials to meet it from Auckland's three main rail capital budgets totalling $1.6 billion.
The minister won strong praise from Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, a strong critic of the Government's abolition of a regional fuel tax designed to pay for electrification and other public transport spending.
"This is an historic moment for Auckland," Mr Lee said.
"Fast, frequent, efficient and modern electric train services can now be a reality.
"We lost a year, but the Government has done the right thing and we have to be honest and gracious enough to thank them for doing it - Steven Joyce has done the right thing and I'm applauding him for it."
Mr Lee said Auckland had been waiting for the announcement for more than 60 years, during which it had twice had its rail electrification hopes dashed.
Public transport in the region was now set to take "a huge leap forward".
Mr Joyce cautioned that much more work was needed over the next six months on day-to-day costs of running Auckland's rail network to ensure services remained affordable as they expanded.
Electrification is expected to spur an almost doubling of annual rail patronage to about 13 million passenger trips by 2016, but he said significant operating losses were indicated for some of the build-up period and he had yet to receive final advice on the feasibility of 10-minute services from when the first electric trains start running.
That would depend on a number of variables including KiwiRail track access fees for "contestable" rail services to be contracted by the new Auckland Transport Agency.
Cost: $1 billion - divided equally between track electrification and new rolling stock.
Where: From central Auckland to Papakura on the southern line and Swanson on the western line.
When: KiwiRail to call for tenders for up to 114 railcars early next year, to start arriving in 2013.