BY TIM WATKIN
New trains and text messages to warn passengers of delays are part of plans to help rescue Auckland's embattled rail services to be announced next week.
The Herald understands the Auckland Regional Council (ARC) is poised to buy extra trains as it searches for medium-term relief for its much-maligned rail network.
Those involved in the deal remain silent on how many trains will be bought and where they will come from, but it is understood they will be above the four units due to arrive next year and will be ready for use in April.
Tranz Metro and the ARC have been stung into action by constant passenger complaints about late trains since the opening of the Britomart transport centre on July 25.
They have struggled to handle the high number of Aucklanders wanting to ride the rails. Passenger numbers in August were 32 per cent higher than in August last year.
The old trains, too, have struggled with the heavier passenger loads. Though they have been refurbished inside, their worn-out engines frequently break down.
Average delays are estimated at eight to 12 minutes and in the last three months only 65 per cent of trains have been less than five minutes late, compared with around 85 per cent last year. That improved to 72 per cent in August and September, however.
"Demand is just growing exponentially," said Tranz Metro manager Paul Ashton. By 2007, the Western Line will be double-tracked, new trains will be introduced and the network electrified, but in the shorter term, Mr Ashton said, "we've identified some quick things we can do to improve service and reliability".
The main changes would be on the Southern Line, with Tranz Metro's SX engines put at either end of a newly configured "push-pull" train from October 20. Their ability to go only one way meant that previously they couldn't get in and out of Britomart. That put off commuters.
But with locomotives at each end extra carriages could be added and these trains could take over the popular 7.35am express from Papakura to the city.
The Tamaki station would close because of poor patronage, saving at least a minute on each run.
On the Western Line, ARC chief executive Jo Brosnahan confirmed the council was seeking funds "urgently" to double-track a section between Boston Rd and New Lynn.
Mr Ashton said a peak-time short- run service from either Avondale or New Lynn to Britomart would be tested next month.
Eager to ease the frustration of passengers waiting at stations with no information about when the next train would arrive, Mr Ashton said Tranz Metro would text frequent train users about delays.
"We are keen to do it. We understand the technology's there. We understand it's used in Melbourne. Based on that, as long as we can structure it appropriately we don't see a lot of issues."
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