Rodney Hide: Get railways back on track

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Auckland's rail system still has a long way to go to deliver value.
Photo / Michael Craig
Auckland's rail system still has a long way to go to deliver value. Photo / Michael Craig

Auckland rail remains a tangle. It's a bit of unfinished business. The Herald on Sunday's investigations reported today reveal the extent of the tangle.

It's been a major boon to have one council and one organisation in charge of Auckland transport. But there's a historical legacy that needs to be sorted.

The council-controlled Auckland Transport provides train services for the Auckland public, owns the trains (but not the locomotives), is responsible for stations and owns the items on the platforms (but not the platforms), provides public transport information, sets the fares and provides subsidies obtained from Auckland Council and the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Private company Veolia is responsible for operating the trains on behalf of Auckland Transport. It provides the staff to operate the trains and collect the fares on the trains. Veolia returns its revenue to Auckland Transport.

State-owned enterprise Kiwi-Rail owns the rail land, tracks and platforms, the electrification equipment, operates the signalling and train control systems, sets the railway rules, carries out the maintenance on the trains, owns the locomotives on the SA trains and supplies around half the train drivers required to drive Auckland's trains.

It's confusing. But does it work? The short answer is no, not nearly well enough.

Here are just some of the problems the Herald on Sunday investigations have revealed:

* Auckland ratepayers paid KiwiRail to refurbish 50-year-old locomotives to haul Auckland's SA trains (locomotive-hauled carriage trains) at great expense and yet these locos are still owned by KiwiRail.

* Veolia does not have enough suitably qualified drivers to drive the SA trains and Auckland Transport has to hire drivers from KiwiRail.

* Most Veolia diesel multiple unit (or railcar) drivers cannot drive SA trains, and most KiwiRail SA drivers cannot drive DMU trains. That means that when there's been a service disruption, the only available driver may not be able to take the train out of Britomart so the train has to be cancelled.

* Veolia train managers are paid the same, irrespective of whether they collect 10 fares or 100 fares. Veolia does not receive the revenue obtained from train fares - it forwards this on to Auckland Transport. They have no incentive to ensure all fares are collected correctly.

* The new and now-delayed integrated ticketing system being rolled out across Auckland's bus train and ferry services will be a largely honesty-based system. On trains, regular passengers will be expected to purchase a Hop swipe card and to "tag on" and "tag off" as they enter and exit stations. Apart from Britomart and Newmarket, there will be no gates or staff to check that passengers do tag on or tag off. If an inspector finds a passenger without a ticket, the passenger has the option to buy and pay for a maximum fare stage ticket from the inspector. If the passenger has no money, the inspector is expected to take their name and address and have a bill sent to the passenger to pay. Good luck with that.

* The Auckland signalling system is now controlled from Wellington and is vulnerable, as happened when in April a power failure in Wellington ground Auckland trains to a halt.

* Auckland Transport penalises Veolia for train services that run more than five minutes late so Veolia sometimes makes fare-paying passengers on late trains get off and wait on the platform for the next train. That way the late train can run "express" non-stop to its destination and arrive on time, helping prevent further, fuller trains running late. The train arrives on time; the passengers don't.

The problems are legacies of the old councils. The challenge for the new Auckland Council is whether it can fix them. Certainly ratepayers and taxpayers deserve much better for their dollar. And commuters should not have to suffer such poor service.
The answer is for Auckland Transport to write proper contracts for the actual performance that matters to commuters.

That's the first challenge. The second challenge is to hold the operators sternly to account for that performance. It's still too sloppy.

There are new financial penalties for failure to achieve the performance levels that Auckland demands: those penalties must be clear, and must be enforced.

The new Auckland Transport is well aware of the legacy problems and is addressing them. They had better. The Auckland Council and the Government won't fund Auckland Transport if it does not perform. There's too much at stake.

And for the first time in Auckland we have clear accountability.

Veolia is held to account by Auckland Transport. Auckland Transport is held to account by the new Mayor and the new council.

Aucklanders can now demand better service and hold to account those who fail to deliver it. What we need now is a timetable for the achievement.

- Herald on Sunday

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