KiwiRail has set the bogies rolling for its $500 million purchase of sleek electric trains for Auckland, telling international suppliers it wants to close a deal by this time next year.
It also wants the trains capable of operating up the steep grade of a 3km central Auckland rail tunnel.
A preferred route has been chosen for a $1 billion-plus project between Britomart and Mt Eden via Albert St and Karangahape Rd, although a business case has yet to be made for funding.
In an industry engagement document issued on Friday to formally alert suppliers to its needs, the state-owned corporation has confirmed a requirement for up to 114 self-propelled electric railcars for delivery from early 2013 and "by no later than 2014".
These are likely to form up to 38 three-car trains, each with about 240 seats, although KiwiRail says it will consider industry suggestions for alternative configurations.
Whatever the configuration, the industry document says the trains will have "a modern appearance in keeping with a world-class suburban rail system".
"The design will ensure that all passenger groups are fully considered in an inclusive manner and that train travel becomes an inviting and pleasurable experience," it says.
A small fleet of about 13 electric locomotives will also be needed to haul Auckland's existing refurbished SA carriages over 80km of tracks between Papakura, Britomart and Swanson.
The document is light on technical detail, apart from stipulating a maximum speed of 110km/h for fully laden trains and a minimum design life of 35 years.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said the aim was to put the industry on alert for a more comprehensive expressions-of-interest document next month.
That is to be followed by a formal request for supply bids in July, ready for a contract to be signed next March.
The start of the procurement process was welcomed by Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, despite what he said was a 15-month delay caused by the Government's intervention in the electrification project.
He noted that the Auckland Regional Transport Authority had already drawn up a short-list of suppliers, and was preparing to call for supply bids in May last year, before the Government decided to block a regional fuel tax designed to pay for the trains and instead to put KiwiRail in the driver's seat.
He said the earlier intention had been to sign a supply contract last November, which he believed might have allowed some electric trains to be running in time for the Rugby World Cup, a suggestion which Transport Minister Steven Joyce disputes.
But Mr Lee said the main consideration now was that Auckland was finally in line for its much-needed electric trains. "The minister has delayed it for 15 months but at least it's going ahead - as long as it's coming, that's the main thing.
"I will get the Champagne out of the fridge - it's been in there longer than I originally reckoned on, but better late than never."
Mr Quinn said that although the project had a long gestation period, KiwiRail recognised it as a critical step forward for Auckland public transport.
He said buying the trains was the final element of the $1 billion electrification project, for which a new signalling system was already being installed.
The first of 3500 power traction masts needed to carry 80km of overhead wires were likely to start appearing above the railway tracks this year.
* KiwiRail has confirmed up to 114 self-propelled electric railcars for delivery from 2013.
* The purchase of sleek electric trains for Auckland will cost $500 million.
* The trains will be capable of operating up the steep grade of a 3km central Auckland rail tunnel.