Te Huia, the passenger rail service from Hamilton to Auckland, has been banned from travelling north of Papakura after the driver failed to obey signals, putting the train at risk of a collision.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency is ordering KiwiRail to fit the Te Huia trains with European safety technology before they can be permitted to return to the area, placing an indefinite ban on the service as it has been operating.
National’s spokesman for transport has called the ban “embarrassing” while a Waikato councillor said she is “bitterly disappointed”.
In a statement, Waka Kotahi director of land transport Neil Cook said the decision comes into effect this afternoon.
It follows two separate incidents in less than a month in which the KiwiRail train driver failed to obey a red signal, putting the train at risk of colliding with another train.
The most recent incident was yesterday morning, according to KiwiRail executive general manager of operations Paul Ashton. Ashton said the train was “not carrying passengers” when it overran a signal just north of Hamilton.
“There were no other train movements in this area, and it was outside the Auckland metro region,” Ashton said.
The other incident was three weeks ago and saw Te Huia pass a stop signal near Penrose. After this incident, Ashton said an investigation “opened immediately” and was nearing completion.
Cook said KiwiRail will be operating buses out of the Papakura train station to replace the train service around the Auckland Metro area.
“We understand that this will cause disruption for people using this service, and we don’t take decisions like this lightly, but we consider that prompt action is crucial to ensure the ongoing safety of everyone using the Auckland Metro rail network,” Cook said.
He said the prohibition will be lifted when KiwiRail “has provided satisfactory evidence of the measures taken to ensure that the safety risks have been adequately mitigated”.
“KiwiRail has assured us that they are taking urgent action to prevent further incidents.”
Ashton said KiwiRail has been ordered by Waka Kotahi to install a new European safety system if it wishes to operate in the Auckland metropolitan network.
However, Ashton said it will take over a year to install and test the system. A KiwiRail spokesperson told the Herald they are having a discussion with Waka Kotahi to “alleviate their concerns” so they may get back to business sooner.
Cook confirmed Waka Kotahi would work with KiwiRail to “consider what else can be done” but the new technology “would be the gold standard”.
The European Train Control System (ETCS) is a predictive safety system used by Auckland metropolitan trains to slow trains approaching a red signal. Currently, it operates only on Auckland Transport trains, and only in the Auckland Metro area.
After the initial incident three weeks ago, the Te Huia service was fitted with Electronic Train Protection (ETP).
“ETP, though different from ETCS, offers an additional level of protection when Te Huia is in the Auckland metro network. ETP will activate the train’s braking system when it passes a red signal in Auckland,” Ashton said.
National’s Transport spokesman Simeon Brown called the ban “embarrassing”.
“This was meant to be the flagship new Interregional passenger rail service and this is an incredibly embarrassing problem that they’re going to have to try and fix,” Brown said.
“They’ve spent tens of millions of dollars setting up this rail between Auckland they’re gonna have to come out pretty quickly and explain what’s gonna be needed to get it back onto the Auckland metro network.”
Brown said it raises “serious questions” about the viability of the network and said the route might be scrapped if National were to come into power.
We’re not opposed to having interregional passenger rail services, but we do want them to be cost-effective and we want them to be reliable and so far this doesn’t appear to be meeting that test.
Waikato regional councillor and deputy chairwoman of the Future Proof Public Transport Subcommittee, Angela Strange, called today’s outcome “bitterly disappointing”.
“Performance results showed Te Huia was on track to meet two-year patronage targets,” Strange said.
“Figures for April 2023 showed an average of 321 passengers each weekday, reaching the year two one-way demand goal of 320 passengers per weekday.
“It’s extremely frustrating that we are now back to stopping the service in Papakura.
“We recognise that this will impact our loyal passengers, who rely on this service, and those planning to try it for the first time.”
State Owned Enterprises Minister Duncan Webb called it a “serious safety concern”.
“I have spoken with the KiwiRail chair and been assured this has been taken seriously,” Webb said.
“I will be monitoring the situation closely and expect to be kept informed by KiwiRail.”
Rachel Maher is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. She has worked for the Herald since 2022.