By BERNARD ORSMAN
Greater Auckland's 1.2 million inhabitants face having only a handful of antiquated, patched-up commuter trains in two years.
The warning comes from Tranz Rail, which told the Herald that only half of its 39 passenger train fleet would be fit for use when its contract expired in June 2003.
The diesel units, bought secondhand from Westrail in Perth, are between 16 and 33 years old and require constant repairs.
Tranz Rail wants to get out of running commuter services in Auckland and Wellington, but has offered to keep a train service running in Auckland until a new $1 billion rail system and new operator are in place after 2005.
While these issues remain unresolved, time is running out on the two years it takes to order and take delivery of trains to keep Aucklanders moving.
It would be a huge embarrassment to open the ultra-modern $261 million Britomart railway station, planned for mid-2003, with a clapped-out train service.
The problem is of concern to local politicians and in Wellington, where the Government has taken over negotiations with Tranz Rail for access to Auckland's rail corridors.
Chris Mackenzie, a senior adviser to Finance Minister Michael Cullen, said the last thing the Government wanted was to take over the rail corridor lease and find there were not enough trains to operate passenger services.
Alternatively, Tranz Rail might not have time to order new stock for an interim passenger train service if lengthy negotiations with the Government broke down, he said.
Mr Mackenzie said the Government had known about the condition of Tranz Rail's rail stock for several months but was aware of surplus rail stock in Japan, South Africa and Queensland that could be altered to New Zealand specifications reasonably quickly.
The Auckland City transport committee chairwoman, Catherine Harland, likened the problem to the 1998 power crisis.
"If you know your infrastructure is coming to the end of its life then you should be putting things in place to ensure a complete failure doesn't occur," she said.
But Barry Mein, the Auckland Regional Council transport manager with responsibility for Auckland's rail service contract, is confident the local service from July 2003 will be equal to or better than the existing service.
He said planners had a few options about replacement stock to present to local politicians in the next few weeks. He refused to discuss the options before then.
"It will be a gradual phase-out [of old rail stock] and a gradual phase-in [of new rail stock], in my view. It's not like Cinderella at midnight at the ball and everything turns into a pumpkin," he said.
Tranz Rail provides 122 services on weekdays from Papakura in the south and Waitakere in the west into Auckland City. About 2700 commuters use the Auckland railway station at The Strand each weekday.
The new Britomart underground platforms at the bottom of Queen St will be able to handle 10,500 passengers an hour, or 48 train services.
Auckland City transport planner Ross Rutherford said hopes of having a new rail service and operator from July 2003 had been put back because of delays due to negotiations with Tranz Rail. It would be at least two years before a new rail service and operator were in place.
Mr Mackenzie said there were meetings weekly, and talks between the Government, Treasury and Tranz Rail to try to wrap up access to Auckland's network by the August deadline.