Nightmare on the Rugby World Cup express

By Catherine Masters

Thousands of fans who took the train to last week's 'family friendly' Rugby World Cup opening celebrations had a horrifying night they would rather forget.

Robyn Paterson and her daughter Poppy Paterson-Boock, 6, were caught up in the mayhem on the train on Rugby World Cup opening night. Photo / Natalie Slade
Robyn Paterson and her daughter Poppy Paterson-Boock, 6, were caught up in the mayhem on the train on Rugby World Cup opening night. Photo / Natalie Slade

Robyn Paterson's partner didn't want her to take six-year-old Poppy to the opening celebrations at the Viaduct.

But the little girl had fallen asleep clutching her Richie McCaw Weetbix rugby card and Robyn couldn't resist.

Poppy was so excited - "who was I to deny her the opportunity of a lifetime?"

Besides, the event had been advertised as family-friendly so to beat the crowds Paterson and Poppy set off from their Titirangi home nice and early for Fruitvale Road Station on the Western Line, aiming for the 2.10pm to Britomart.

Blissfully unaware of what was to come, they joined face-painted locals waving flags and watched as the 2.10pm train duly arrived, paused, then left again.

It was full to the brim. Paterson watched in amazement as stressed and sweating train guards physically shoved an "oozing load of passengers inwards, Japanese commuter-style" just to allow the doors to close again.

In hindsight, Paterson thinks this was probably the moment she and Poppy should have turned back for home.

But they didn't. The next train arrived about 15 minutes later and there was just enough room for the mother and daughter to squash into a carriage around the middle of the train.

As they travelled, passing slowly through station after station with more and more people squashing in, they were pushed tighter into the carriage. Paterson focused on positioning herself to create a small air-pocket for Poppy.

The mood wasn't helped by a group of squealing teenage girls who'd had a few too many RTDs and yelled "Justin Bieber" at random intervals - not so funny the 46th time.

Nearly an hour into a 25-minute journey, everyone was finding it hard to breathe and Paterson and Poppy were desperate to get out.

The young children on the train got very overheated and red in the face. Older people were anxious and upset, and others were feeling sick.

One woman was hyperventilating and another was calming her down.

The train seemed to stop on the line quite a lot but the carriage was so crowded that most couldn't see where they were.

About 3.30pm, their "travelling sardine tin limped into Britomart" and for a brief, glorious, moment they were free.

Thousands of people were pouring up the escalator but at least they were all going in one direction and as the pair emerged into the sunlight excitement kicked in again - though this didn't last.

The waterfront, says Paterson, "was about as family-friendly as the mosh-pit at a Rage Against the Machine concert".

They ended up at the big screen which wasn't working and became stuck in a swirling crowd, including some people with beer bottles.

Almost immediately, they decided to leave but leaving wasn't easy either.

It took ages getting from Quay St back to Britomart and when nearly there "bruised, scratched and shattered" they couldn't get close to the building because it was thick with people queuing outside.

Then a fellow traveller told them they were at the wrong place, that trains at this entrance were only going to the game and if they wanted to go home they had to go down the road to another entrance where commuters were being sent to wait at different platforms to the rugby-goers.

Off they went to try to find the second entrance, joining another throng of people - it took another hour just to find the right queue for the Western line.

By the time they made it on to a train it was dark and the train was packed as tightly as the first.

When they got home, about 8pm, Paterson poured a gin and watched Tonga play the All Blacks on the telly.

Of the six-hour marathon, she reckons they enjoyed about 20 minutes.

And yet, their story isn't that bad - compared to some others.

One week on, it's still difficult to match the details of people's experiences with the official timeline provided by train operator Veolia. For instance there's confusion over how many trains were held up for how long at the biggest flashpoints, Newmarket and Britomart - passenger accounts suggest several trains held up for hours in the late afternoon - and Veolia said they were too busy preparing for this weekend to provide a more detailed explanation.

But it is clear that Britomart's faulty set-up, already criticised after previous rail network breakdowns, played an important part. The station has five platforms but there are only two tracks through the Britomart tunnel for trains from three lines, the Eastern, Western and Southern lines. This leads to a bottleneck which can mean long delays and frustrated passengers, even on a normal day.

Arriving trains have to leave the terminus the same way they came in - through the tunnel - to create platform space for incoming trains. These new arrivals often have to queue outside the tunnel for lengthy periods while the terminus is emptied out.

Newmarket was another problem area. Veolia scheduled only four additional Southern Line services to travel direct from Papakura to Eden Park (swapping to the Western Line at Newmarket and bypassing Britomart) but most others continued into the Britomart terminus where some people reported having a long walk to the other side of the platform to catch a Western Line train and then head back out of Britomart to the Kingsland stop, the disembarkation point for Eden Park.

There was havoc mainly on the Southern and Western lines at various times, from the first logged incident at 1.44pm (person on the track at Greenlane, train stopped) to the last after midnight (passengers fighting, all trains into Britomart stopped).

By the time Kim Davis and her family set off for the waterfront from Ranui in West Auckland at 4.40pm, the incidents were clocking up - they included a passenger collapsing on a train at Newmarket, passengers trying to board a moving train in Henderson, children on tracks at Te Mahia, someone fainting in a crowded carriage near Middlemore, along with emergency brake buttons being activated and passengers forcing open train doors and disembarking on to tracks.

All these incidents led to delays. If Paterson and Poppy's experience - they were at that time fighting their way out of the waterfront - was ghastly, Kim Davis and her family were in for their own horrible time.

Davis was travelling with her 8-year-old son Dontaye, her brother Sean Hurndell and his wife Kylie and their two children Paige and Linkin, 5 and 3.

They, too, took a Western Line train (Ranui is five stops further back than Fruitvale Road Station). They hopped on a carriage at the back of a near-empty train and settled down for the 15-stop journey into the city.

About the time they got on board, someone on a train at Britomart was having a suspected heart attack and was moved to Platform 4 for CPR. The platform closed for half an hour and the delays back down the line continued to get worse.

By Henderson, just two stops on, there was standing room only on Davis' train. By Mt Albert, another six stops along, people trying to get on started getting pushy and shoved passengers further into the carriage to make room. The train came to a halt just before Newmarket, and that's where it stayed for two long hours.

Davis heard just one intercom message the whole time - when they were told the train had to wait for a platform to become free at Britomart.

While waiting for the platform, passengers started counting trains going past them into Britomart - there were 12.

The carriage became noisy and chaotic and the children began crying. Davis started to suffer an asthma attack and put her face to the air conditioning so she could breathe.

Everyone was having trouble breathing because so many people were sucking up all the air.

A bunch of youths were swearing and threatening a Maori warden on the train, yelling at him "just let us off the f***ing train, we need to breathe."

But when a drunk 50-year-old man sitting opposite Davis' niece and nephew started swearing his head off, terrifying them, a young man aged about 20 told him off and the man didn't speak again.

Then the passengers were told the delay was all their fault.

The Maori warden and guards said people had set off emergency buttons which meant the train could not move.

When one of those red buttons is pushed the brakes are slammed on and train staff have to come out to the train and reset them.

But the only way to lever the doors open is by pushing the emergency button.

Utes were going around the train quite often and Davis could hear people working under the train.

She says the train stopped well before any emergency button was pushed and it was crazy and hot in the carriages.

Towards the end, the youths eventually got the doors open and jumped off the train into the night. A message had also been relayed to passengers that an empty train was coming to collect them and they would have to get off their train and jump across into one alongside.

About 7.30pm that train pulled up, Davis thinks after dropping a load of people off at Eden Park, and when they finally got into Britomart it seemed the entire trainload of people raced for the toilets.

The relieved family headed upstairs and out into the night only to be greeted by drunks and more chaos.

Twenty minutes later they were over it, and spent wasted time queuing to get back into Britomart before seeing a very small sign saying they needed to catch a rail bus from Customs St because only trains bound for Eden Park were being allowed - even though by then it was about 9pm.

Veolia's incident log puts it this way: That at 5.45pm emergency brakes were activated on multiple occasions while a train was stopped at Newmarket. That passengers disembarked. That all trains were stopped in the vicinity for safety reasons. That a second train was called to take passengers. That the incident brought the Southern and Western line to a standstill.

The Herald had plenty of reports from people stuck around Remuera and Newmarket.

Trains coming from the south also pass through Newmarket station and Lea Togia was on one coming from Manurewa, usually a 15 to 20-minute trip.

She, her partner and some cousins jumped on a train at 6.15pm only to find this was their first mistake, as it was going to Kingsland and not Britomart where they were headed to see the fireworks.

But they thought, not to worry, they'd get off at Newmarket and make their way from there.

On the platform at Manurewa people were all dressed up and the mood was electric. Again, the train wasn't crowded so they found seats in the carriage back from the driver.

At the next two stops, Puhinui and Papatoetoe, the train quickly filled up and there was pushing and shoving.

People on the platforms actually ran at the doors and some squeezed through, huffing and puffing.

By the time they got to Middlemore, Togia was thinking "why are we even stopping, there's just no space".

Still, people were in good spirits, helped by nine Tongan guys from Australia in the carriage who were cracking jokes and entertaining everyone.

"They were just like mocking each other and taking the mickey out of each other. You know that ad, the alcohol one and all the guys are calling each other mate and then they have a car accident and all of a sudden it's Dave, they had a guy there whose name was Dave and cause he was drinking they were like 'don't be a Dave'."

The men were having a few beers but Togia says in their defence they weren't expecting to be on the train for long.

But then the train stopped just before Remuera Station and after waiting for quite a while the buzz started to drop.

People began to get frustrated and told each other to be quiet so as not to suck up all the air.

Togia was being affected by the heat, too. She was breathing faster and her heart was beating faster.

"I just had to keep myself calm 'cause there were other people around. I felt so sorry for the toddler in front of us."

The little Tongan boy changed colour, from normal to red, so she fanned him with a piece of paper.

Togia was at the front of the carriage by the window and could see outside. The driver was waiting for the light to turn green and messages relayed from the driver by a guard said he didn't want to take the risk of taking off and colliding with other trains coming through.

One of the Tongans, who had been bursting for some time, couldn't hold on any longer and about 7.30pm he peed into his empty beer bottle in the corner of the train.

There was more waiting before they were told by a ticket collector they should leave the train through the driver's door, but they ran into another guard, angry the emergency button had been pushed so much.

Togia thinks it was about 7.50pm when they climbed out in the dark because fireworks began in the distance.

They picked their way along the tracks and walked into Newmarket looking out for buses and taxis, but with hundreds of passengers all doing the same it took a while.

Finally a taxi van picked them up and they managed to see the All Blacks perform the haka through the window of a restaurant while the taxi waited at a red light.

They could hear it, too, because the driver had the radio on.

They finally got into town and hung out for a while watching the game and enjoying being with the crowd, but headed off before the game finished thinking they'd try for a train back.

The line was "ridiculous", stretching 10 people wide and beginning maybe two blocks away from Britomart, so they walked again, up past Auckland University and called a cab. The driver told them he had to lock his doors on the way to get them because people tried to jump in the van.

He took them all the way back to Manurewa where - with sore feet - they had breakfast at Dennys at 2am.

Then there are the stories of those who were just trying to get to Eden Park in good time for the opening ceremony, like the Keasts from Levin who bought tickets not only to all the All Blacks' pool games but to all possible All Black games until the final.

At 4.30pm Pauline and Bill set off from their motel in Ellerslie with their friends Ena and Ivan Hill to catch a bus, but the buses were all full so they carried on to Ellerslie Station.

It took until 5.30pm to squeeze aboard a train but only 10 minutes later it stopped two kilometres short of Britomart and sat there for an hour.

The Keasts, like everyone else, describe how people were packed in like sardines. They were standing, they couldn't move, the carriage got steadily hotter and the air thinner.

Though Eden Park was almost within sniffing distance, the friends were not on one of the direct trains to Kingsland and about 6.40pm they disembarked at Britomart "into a horrible push and shove of crowds moving against one another in both directions".

Staff pointed them up to street level and they trekked across the square to get to the other side of the train station, pushing their way though an excitable, raucous crowd.

Ten minutes later they joined the queue for a train to Eden Park and at 7pm they squeezed on to one.

The train didn't move. It sat at Britomart for 30 minutes.

At 7.30pm they were kicked off the train and told there were no more trains.

The nearest incident on Veolia's log is a fire extinguisher being used on a train at Kingsland at 7.30pm. Passengers were evacuated and services delayed for 30 minutes.

The Keasts went back out on to the street and more by good luck than anything else, managed to find a bus which took them to Eden Park - though they then had to walk almost the whole way around the stadium to find their entry point.

They got to their seats at about 8.15pm and enjoyed the game.

But afterwards, they were not impressed with the blue-coated World Cup "transport ambassadors" who couldn't tell them which bus to get to Ellerslie - and some of whom were not polite.

About 11.20pm a security guard helped them get a bus to Newmarket and from there they hailed a cab back to Ellerslie.

Jeremy Wilson was having an equally horrible time.

Wilson, a Kiwi who has lived in Sydney for 4 years, flew over especially for the Opening Ceremony and All Blacks-Tonga match.

He saved up for the tickets which he got through the ballot and turned up at the Ellerslie platform around 5.30pm to be told there was significant overloading in the train system and to expect delays of 30 to 40 minutes.

Crowded trains went by but the motorway was so quiet, Wilson and his friend Brendon took photos.

One of the direct trains for Kingsland arrived so they forced their way into the third carriage in the middle of the train and were in good spirits, expecting to make it to the Opening Ceremony.

But the train ground to a halt just before Newmarket.

They were told nothing - if they had been told how long they would have to wait he reckons people could have got off and still found their way to the game. As it was, they were still standing in the packed train at 7.30pm when the Opening Ceremony was due to start.

People were angry and frustrated, and some were having trouble breathing.

As time had ticked away, Wilson used his iPhone to check the websites for Maxx & Veolia - on international roaming rates - but other than the helpful advice to allow plenty of time for travel, there was nothing.

Other passengers rang Maxx & Veolia and were told to "calm down and understand the situation". Wilson thinks a passenger even called 111.

Emergency buttons were being pressed to get the doors open and air in, but every time a marshall arrived and demanded the door be closed.

When told people were about to faint, he still demanded the door be closed.

An announcement - the only announcement Wilson heard - came over the PA that all emergency doors needed to be closed before the train could move.

Passengers were told it was their fault for delaying the train and that as soon as the doors were all closed, the train would move.

But the train didn't move. People were now agitated and some were getting aggressive. Some had been drinking and needed a toilet, children cried and people felt faint.

When the emergency button was pressed again, people got off the train - if they hadn't Wilson believes there would have been a riot.

He and Brendon climbed up the embankment, across a construction zone and on to St Marks Rd where they encountered a TV3 news crew arriving. From Manukau Rd they got a cab which dropped them at Mt Eden village and they walked to the ground from there.

While they walked they saw fireworks from the opening ceremony; they arrived just as the ceremony ended. The night was a "massive disappointment."

Wilson is returning to New Zealand for the All Blacks' game against France and for the final - but he won't be taking the train.

- NZ Herald

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