Rail renaissance faces challenge

By Mathew Dearnaley

Underground link looms as next big step for public transport system.

Rob Askew was amazed by the post-Britomart turnaround in rail commuting. Photo / Chris Gorman
Rob Askew was amazed by the post-Britomart turnaround in rail commuting. Photo / Chris Gorman

Auckland's public transport system has taken a quantum leap since the first diesel train shuffled into the $211 million Britomart station nine years ago, but it remains a political punchbag.

Although train patronage has more than quadrupled and the overall system including buses and ferries carried 36 per cent more passengers last year than in 2003, there is concern about slackening momentum when Auckland desperately needs Government buy-in for its next big transformational step - the central rail link.

Bums on seats are what speak to Wellington's funding bureaucracy, and Auckland Council transport chairman Mike Lee is fretting that the rapid transit network - including Northern Busway as well as rail - has been "flat-lining" in recent months.

"The real concern would be a decline," he told Auckland Transport's board this week.

"I would suggest patronage is a key performance indicator, and would therefore ask management to take this matter very seriously."

But although Auckland's rail renaissance is possibly in a hiatus before the 2014 arrival of the cavalry in the form of electric trains, and punctuality is still too hit and miss, it should not be forgotten how much public traction has been gained since pre-Britomart days.

The old Strand station was lucky to have 700 commuters struggling off dilapidated old diesel trains, compared with more than 6000 counted on Britomart's platforms during Auckland Council's annual two-hour morning peak survey in March this year, supporting a transport planning maxim that "if you build it, they will come".

There were no passenger trains on the eastern line through Glen Innes until 7.15am, after which there were still big gaps in services to make way for freight headed to the port.

The last train out of Auckland left at 6.30pm, and big news associated with Britomart's opening was an extension of evening services to 8pm from Monday to Saturday, although Sunday services were still some time away and there were no lights at many stations to give passengers any clues about where they were at night.

Grumpy commuters sweltered in trains running at half-speed the previous summer because of buckled rail joints, a legacy of maintenance cuts by the then privately owned Tranz Rail.'

Auckland Council member Christine Fletcher, who was mayor of the city when she signed Britomart into existence, said yesterday it was a risk that had paid off, not only as a flagship public transport system but also as a example of urban renewal which had changed the way Aucklanders felt about their heritage and waterfront.

"At the time it was really hard to justify the investment but I think it shows that when you do a public transport project well, there are a whole range of additional benefits."

Although acknowledging that patronage was "at a slight plateau at the moment", she did not see that as particularly alarming.

She believed the electric trains would have a huge effect and would boost the case with the Government for the $2.86 billion underground city rail link to turn Britomart into a through station.

Britomart makes catching the train a serious option

Auckland University computer science professor Clark Thomborson recalls waiting with never more than three people under a leaking roof at Meadowbank Station in the pre-Britomart days of the late 1990s.

They would sometimes club together to take a taxi if a passenger train was bumped off its schedule by priority freight.

"It was clearly not a commuter line - it was a freight line with the oddball commuter thing happening.

"And when trains tried to pull out of the station, half the time they wouldn't move, the clutch would slip, they'd be dropping brake shoes - it was really scary maintenance in those days," he recalls.

Although many of the trains now are still the same old diesels, they have at least been refurbished and Professor Thomborson says they seem to be better maintained.

Fellow rail commuter Rob Askew used to ride trains out of curiosity as a schoolboy, as they could not be relied on for regular service. He was amazed when he started taking them to work after Britomart opened and saw how popular they had become.

- NZ Herald

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