Signal failure

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
13 October, 2022

Aucklanders have yet more rail disruption to look forward to this Christmas.

Last week, in a bolt from the blue, KiwiRail and Auckland Transport announced a series of major shutdowns to train lines in the Super City. Part of a $330 million overhaul, the network upgrade will replace the rock foundations underneath the tracks. The project will impact the entire line, meaning all Aucklanders who rely on rail will be affected at some point over the next two years.

Mayors may come and go but rail disruptions seemingly last forever.

Some commuters might well be a little miffed that the whole network is set for an expansive, not to mention expensive, rebuild. After all, it was only earlier this year that KiwiRail wrapped up an unprecedented programme of works aimed at revitalizing the city’s rail network. The electrification of the Papakura-Pukekohe line is ongoing, and not scheduled for completion until late 2024. You can almost hear the crunch of basalt against heavy machinery.

How did our largest city veer so far off track?

David Gordon, KiwiRail’s Chief Operating Officer – Capital Projects & Asset Management, argues that the Rail Network Rebuild is a necessary inconvenience. Yet there are a lot of moving parts to his explanation, and it remains unclear why this particular course of action has been chosen without adequate consultation.

Gordon cites the need to prepare Auckland for the rollout of the City Rail Link (CRL) in 2024 among his chief reasons for digging up the tracks. At the same time, he makes a more general point about “future-proofing” Auckland rail for decades to come.

Everyone recognises that transport infrastructure must be adequately funded and financed to ensure that people can get around. But it raises the question as to why Auckland’s rail network now finds itself in such a parlous state.

To be sure, no one doubts the complexities facing both KiwiRail and Auckland Transport. They are in the unenviable position of having to rejig a broken transport system in a context of massive population growth and poor overall funding and financing mechanisms.

It has not helped that Auckland Council has been intent on reducing vehicle kilometres travelled, even by EVs, rather than rely on the Emissions Trading Scheme to drive down net emissions.

These difficulties make it all the more important to bring people with you. So far, KiwiRail and Auckland Transport have played a bad hand badly. Key stakeholders were not informed of their plans, let alone consulted.

Former Mayor Phil Goff was reputedly only told three days before the news went public, while counsellors had to wait until after the fact before they were given a written briefing. When Kathryn Ryan pressed Gordon on the communications failure on RNZ’s Nine To Noon, the response was underwhelming.

This is all part of a larger failure to think strategically about critical infrastructure over the long run.

New Zealand’s railways have been in managed decline since the 1950s, when passenger numbers dropped in the face of competition from cars. Some of that was inevitable. Lines that could only support themselves when regulation prevented freight from moving on roads were ultimately unsustainable.

But urban commuter rail has to be put on a sound financial footing. If the amount passengers, councils, and government are willing to pay for the service is less than the cost of running it, then deferred maintenance is a poor way of balancing the books. It only accumulates a debt that needs to be repaid later.

New Zealand Infrastructure Commission/Te Waihanga has pointed out that New Zealand spends significantly less on rail than other high income countries. However, we do not yet have a clear sense of the split between urban passenger services and freight. And spending levels may matter less than the cost-effectiveness of that investment.

Knowing the extent of the accumulating problem would help.

A hollowed out rail system also results in a serious lack of technical know-how. As the railway historian André Brett notes, we no longer possess the “institutional capacity and expertise to deliver them [railway lines] efficiently and cheaply” – though regulatory barriers to building may also have risen since the heyday of New Zealand rail.

There are real world implications for getting this stuff wrong.

In the first instance, Auckland’s trains are much slower than international peers. Greater Auckland, a transport advocacy group, notes that the city’s trains are on average 5-10km/h slower than comparable systems overseas. For someone commuting between Swanson and Britomart, say, that means a journey that takes 56 minutes instead of 43 minutes. There’s a cost to that, although KiwiRail and Auckland Transport have not yet provided details about how the upgrades will address network speed. You would have thought that would have been front and centre.

Something has also clearly gone awry with routine maintenance and monitoring. Again, we have been here before. The 2020/21 line closures and speed restrictions were deemed necessary because a number of tracks were found to be in a state of disrepair. Where is the real-time information about the health of our rail network, for instance, and why are we being alerted to major problems so late in the picture? This needs to be urgently addressed, otherwise problems will continue to fester.

It is not enough to suggest, as David Gordon does, that the Rail Network Rebuild is necessary because lines laid down in the 1870s have come to the end of their natural lifespan. Other countries do not have to take the entire network down in their largest city. Moreover, a number of lines date from the very recent past: the Manukau Line was built in 2012, for example. This hardly takes you back to Julius Vogel.

KiwiRail and Auckland Transport need to signal that they have a credible strategy to prevent future disruptions. A coherent business case for how the Super City intends to fund rail in the decades ahead needs to be clearly articulated, with a transparent analysis of how depreciation costs will be managed. Expert advice and alternative funding structures likewise merit much greater consideration.

An extended shutdown of Auckland’s rail network is hardly an ideal Christmas present. It’s expensive and does not please anyone. But unless the underlying issues plaguing Auckland’s rail network are fixed, the latest salvo in Auckland’s transport nightmare will not be the last.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

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