Auckland Transport CEO rips into KiwiRail over train disruptions, urges it to 'put better people' on its board

Auckland Transport (AT) has written to KiwiRail complaining about the number of "surprise and short-notice restrictions" it's been putting on the city's rail network and urging it to "put better people" on its board.

AT says the disruptions are discouraging commuters from getting back on trains, with patronage still far below what it was pre-COVID-19 - and the financial hit could result in other services being cut.

"At a time when Auckland Council and central Government are investing more in rail as demonstrated by the opening of Puhinui Interchange at the end of July 2021 we are very frustrated," AT chief executive Shane Ellison wrote in an email earlier this month to his KiwiRail counterpart, Greg Miller.

"This is clearly an unacceptable ongoing situation."

KiwiRail owns the network and infrastructure, and AT pays an annual fee to use it. 

Last year, consultants told AT and KiwiRail the city's rail network needed $200 million of repairs done after years of neglect. Some of the sleepers - the wooden planks that sit beneath the tracks - were found to be six decades old, while the tracks themselves needed replacing in many places. Speed restrictions were put in place across the network for a number of months. 

While some of the work has been done - including the replacement of 130km of tracks - more problems have since been uncovered, including the need to replace more than a dozen 'turnouts' - where tracks split in two, allowing trains to take different routes. That discovery in June led to the sudden reintroduction of speed limits on the Southern Line, which serves places like Manurewa, Pukekohe and Ōtāhuhu. 

"This resulted in the weekday peak frequency being halved to 20 minutes at very short notice for our customers," Ellison's letter said. 

AT's logo is seen on the side of a train.
AT's logo is seen on the side of a train. Photo credit: Newshub.

While accepting the restrictions are necessary from a safety perspective, Ellison said the short notice from KiwiRail dented confidence in the rail network. 

"We understand that the duration for the temporary speed restrictions is still being assessed by KiwiRail but could be in the region of 4-6 months," he wrote. "This we assume will result in reduced peak frequency of Auckland metro services on the Southern Line over this period.

"This is deeply disappointing and is having a significant detrimental impact on the trust and confidence in the rail and public transport network, in KiwiRail and in Auckland Transport and Auckland Council. 

"The impact on customers is severe. Many of those in the south travelling on rail are travelling long distances and have limited alternative options. Riding a bike or paying for an Uber are unattractive and forcing Aucklanders back to their motor vehicles is counter to the 'climate change', 'travel choice' and productivity outcomes central Government and Auckland Council is trying to achieve."

Since the restrictions were introduced, Ellison says patronage has dropped to 30 percent of what it was before the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020.

"We expect that the impact on fare revenue and our financial position could be as much as $7 million over the next six months which may put us in the unenviable position of cutting other public transport services for Aucklanders."

Ellison asked Miller to explain what steps KiwiRail is taking to remove the speed restrictions "as a matter of urgency", and what it's doing to "mitigate the reputational impacts and financial impacts on AT and Auckland Council".

He also urged KiwiRail to ensure its staff and contractors "operate in a safe manner", after 19 trains were damaged by old rails left next to a track on the Western Line in late June

"Track infrastructure and fleet can be fixed, our reputation and trust with our customers will take considerably longer to repair, and this is becoming more difficult as unplanned events and incidents cause service levels to be disrupted."

Newshub contacted both KiwiRail and AT, the latter of which said it had nothing more to add.

KiwiRail acting group chief executive Todd Moyle says the background to AT's letter is an "enormous" programme of work underway on the Auckland network, ranging from a backlog of maintenance work and the discovery of severe rolling contact fatigue on the rails. There are also additional large capital projects underway, including a third main line extension and the electrification of the network between Papakura and Pukekohe.

"In time, this will build a much more reliable and resilient network but in the meantime we are having to deliver this work while doing our best to minimise disruption to weekday commuter services, as well as freight trains, Te Huia and the Northern Explorer," Moyle says.

"The reality of rail is that, unlike roads, it's rare to be able to divert trains round work so generally it is only possible to carry it out when we have agreement from AT to stop trains - usually at nights and weekends - so we can work efficiently and safely. It's a very big and complex logistical undertaking."

They had estimated they would need four to six months of temporary speed restrictions (TSRs) on the Southern Line. From Thursday, the network will be able to handle a 10-minute service frequency on this line as a result of reprioritisation of materials and resources, Moyle says. This work will continue until September 30 when all TSRs relating to turnouts on the Southern Line will be removed.

"From time to time over the next few years TSRs will be required as we continue our extensive programme of improvements," he says.

"These TSRs are likely to be less disruptive than previously, and we will be working closely with AT to minimise the disruption caused by the speed restrictions across the network."

Moyle adds that in terms of the board, appointment of members is a matter for the Government.

AT's website notes work on the network is "generally undertaken on weekends and public holidays when there are fewer people travelling".

Greater Auckland, a pro-public transport non-profit, said AT "clearly [has] had enough of Kiwirail's incompetence over how it runs the rail network", noting in a separate letter AT had asked KiwiRail to "put better people" on its board.

"As someone who has gone through over a century of rail-related files from NZ government bodies, my professional take on these two letters is: Holy shit this is spicy," added rail historian Andre Brett

The city's long-awaited and expensive City Rail Link is expected to open in 2024.