Push for electric to Pukekohe

By Mathew Dearnaley

Support is building for extending electric trains to Pukekohe, despite questions about construction timing for the $2.86 billion central Auckland rail tunnel.

Auckland Transport's board decided yesterday to include an investigation into electrifying rail to Pukekohe as a late addition to its 10-year programme, in response to public submissions.

That comes as Auckland Mayor Len Brown faces a bumpy ride from right-leaning councillors in negotiating an early start to the 3.5km rail tunnel project at a long-term budget meeting tomorrow.

Construction work on s electrifying Auckland's rail network to Papakura and Swanson at a cost to the Government of about $500 million is meanwhile being listed among reasons for the city's trains continuing to run late.

Only 68 per cent of trains on the eastern line arrived at their final destinations within five minutes of scheduled times last month, dragging down overall network performance and prompting a call from Auckland Transport chairman Mark Ford for a special report.

Other reasons for delays cited by the council-controlled organisation included a power cut to KiwiRail's train control centre in Wellington on April 26, halting all Auckland services for more than an hour in the evening travel peak.

A recommendation from a hearings panel to add the Pukekohe investigation to the organisation's programme won support from the Citizens and Ratepayers' leader on the Auckland Council, Christine Fletcher, as well as from council transport chairman Mike Lee.

Both are appointees to the organisation's board and Mr Lee headed the former Auckland Regional Council when it asked the previous Labour government in 2008 to add an 18km Pukekohe extension to the $500 million electrification project.

That was estimated to cost an extra $115 million.

Mr Lee said yesterday that a Cabinet decision to make Papakura the southern cut-off point for electrification had been "somewhat arbitrary", and the 20 services a day now running from Pukekohe were "very much an integral part of the rail system".

Across the political divide, Mrs Fletcher said strong consensus was building around the Auckland Council table for electrification to Pukekohe, and she believed it should consider a reprioritisation of other work to allow that to happen.

"No other [transport] project has so much support," she told the Auckland Transport board.

After the board meeting, Mrs Fletcher was reluctant to elaborate on her call for a reprioritisation of transport projects, or to make a direct link with the central rail tunnel.

Although independent right-leaning councillor Cameron Brewer has said it would be crazy to spend $112 million in the coming year on tunnel land purchases without Government backing, she insisted her team was "not opposed" to the project and supported protecting its route.

"We are just unclear at this stage on the sequencing of construction," she told the Herald.

On the other hand, the overwhelming view of those making submissions on Auckland Transport's draft programme was that extending electrification to Pukekohe was "that this is a no-brainer to optimise investment in rail".

Mr Lee was sceptical, saying he suspected Mrs Fletcher was joining the Pukekohe cause as "a face-saving way to justify her weakening on her commitment to the city rail link [tunnel], which she campaigned on".

- NZ Herald

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