Mathew Dearnaley: City's rail service enters new electric era

The first  of a planned fleet of 57 electric trains will be phased into service from April. Photo / Dean Purcell
The first of a planned fleet of 57 electric trains will be phased into service from April. Photo / Dean Purcell

It was hard to believe we were whooshing through South Auckland at 112km/h between high-speed braking trials on the first electric train.

After a gentle and barely notice able start, unannounced by the din or lurching of a classic diesel take-off, it felt as though the big, bright new conveyance was just warming up, with plenty more grunt in reserve from its 25,000-volt overhead power supply.

But the giddy rate at which landscape receded behind our stealth machine confirmed the speedometer in our otherwise deactivated rear driving cab could not have been lying, and we had taken a quantum leap ahead of rail travel as previously known in Auckland.

The train felt as stable as a wide-bodied jumbo jet flying through clear air, with none of the body-jarring motion or clickety-clack of the diesel sets it - and 56 more three-car electric sets - will replace.

Even during emergency braking drills between Otahuhu and Puhinui on a weekend when scheduled passenger services were suspended to help KiwiRail towards completion of its part in the $1.14 billion electrification project, we were easily able to stay standing in a wide aisle running the full 72m length of the new train, although strap hangers provided an added guarantee of stability.

Wide windows gave a great sense of spaciousness, although the train has yet to be load-tested with sandbags to simulate its 375-passenger capacity.

Comfortable seats, their blue and black fabric designed by Auckland artists, were covered by heavy plastic to keep them in mint condition for the first fare-paying passengers and we were told to be careful not to trip over temporary wires running to testing stations set up through the train to monitor its performance.

The main drama was when representatives of Spanish train-maker and maintenance contractor CAF dumped a water solution containing 50 litres of dishwashing liquid onto the tracks below us, to test the brakes on slippery surfaces, before bringing the train to an easy emergency stop from 110km/h in little more than 450m. That compares with 750m in which existing locomotive-hauled passenger trains require to stop from 100km/h, and 885m for freight trains from 80km/h.

As for acceleration, the new train takes just 57 seconds to hit 110km/h, little more than about 100 seconds needed by a diesel locomotive train to reach 80km/h, about its top speed.

Each of the three cars has emergency buttons, where passengers can talk through an intercom and be seen by the train driver through CCTV cameras.

Another important feature is a split-level middle car, allowing passengers with disabilities, pushchairs or bikes to board at platform level, and Auckland Transport is negotiating for Wi-Fi services for passengers.


- NZ Herald

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