At a Glance: Auckland's rail history

  • 11/09/2013

The official unveiling of Auckland's first electric train today marks the beginning of a new era in the city's rail history.

The first of the 57 three-car units, made in Spain, arrived in early September as part of the city's $1.14 billion rail electrification project.

Auckland Transport Authority expects patronage on these faster, quieter and more efficient trains to more than double to 17 million passengers per annum by 2016, contributing to an overall doubling of patronage on public transport in Auckland.

Transport expert Matt Lowrie from Transportblog.co.nz says the switch to electric trains is long overdue.

"People have been suggesting the move for decades, even as far back as the early 1920s," he says.

"Studies have compared us to other civilised cities and we're by far the worst in terms of rail usage, costs and everything. There are a lot of reasons behind that."

Mr Lowrie says projects were hindered by a perception that Aucklanders wouldn't use trains, amidst a wider bias against all public transport.

"It wasn't just scepticism of electric trains, but scepticism of trains in general. It's taken a lot of hard work to shake that perception." 

The early days

The first train line was constructed from Auckland to Drury in 1863, with a branch to Onehunga. Horse drawn trams were still used until 1902 when they were replaced with electric trams, but this was used mostly as a freight network.

Rail travel remained difficult in the North Island until the main trunk line was completed in 1908, after 23 years of work. The Government sped the process up and engineers hurried to finish it in time to greet the American navy's 'Great White Fleet'. It was heralded as a great milestone of the 'railway age.'

Mr Lowrie says electrification plans in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s were all looped in with the City Rail proposals.

"They failed with them all tied together. You can imagine how hard it'd be to get a $4 billion project over the line."

The first proposals for electrification in the 1920s were tied up with those for an earlier version of the City Rail Link, dubbed 'the Morningside Deviation', consisting of an underground tunnel from the CBD to Morningside.

The main rail terminal was moved to Beach Rd in 1930, with the anticipation the city would spread in this direction, while Britomart station was redeveloped as a bus terminal.

Aucklanders partly accepted this decision in the 1920s in light of the proposed Morningside Deviation, which would have given stations in the middle of town. However, the plan was abandoned and rail patronage started to fall.

"People weren't catching trains because the main station wasn't where they wanted it to be and there wasn't necessarily a huge catchment of people in places like Penrose," says Mr Lowrie. "[Patronage] then stagnated for decades until there was a small boost in the 1970s." 

The lead-up to electrification

In 1974 the Labour government agreed to dedicate money to the Newmarket loop project and electrification, but it was later deemed too costly by the National government.

There was strong opposition to the Britomart scheme put forward by Auckland mayor Les Mills in 1995, with many arguing it was too financially risky, but after public consultation in 1999 under Jenny Shipley, the City Council approved the first stage of the new train station.

The design and build of the $204 million Britomart Transport Centre was by no means an easy task, but in June 2003 it was officially opened and trains returned to the CBD after almost 73 years.  

Mr Lowrie says the opening of Britomart has been by far the biggest change in our rail history. "Patronage jumped significantly and we started investing in infrastructure and improving services."

By 2006, development plans for double-tracking and electrification had been revitalised and were included in Labour's Budget. The upgrading of Auckland stations commenced in 2007, including the major work on the Newmarket hub.

Auckland gets new electric trains

Mr Lowrie says there was still the clear need to replace Auckland's outdated trains.

"Most of the ones we have now are 40-years-old and second-hand; some are refurbished ones from the UK, which are better quality than what they were of course, but they are still very old and are pulled around by old freight locomotives."

Finally the announcement commuters had been waiting came in 2009 – Cabinet had approved the funding of $500 million for the purchase of a new fleet of electric trains, as part of a wider programme of infrastructure improvements.

Mr Lowrie says it turned out to be cheaper to buy electric trains than to replace them with new diesel ones. "They're cheaper to manufacture and operate." 

He says it will take a while to see the impacts of electrification, it's very common to see a huge boost in patronage.

"It's become known around the world as the 'spark effect'. One of the best examples is in Perth, where in just a few short years after introducing electric trains, their patronage doubled."

Newest developments

The 1930s Eastern line was the last development to Auckland's network for nearly 80 years, until work began in 2009 on the 2km long line to Manukau City's new transport hub. The $50 million project is being built to be compatible with the electrification of the network. Kiwirail says it is expected to be one of New Zealand's busiest stations, competing with Newmarket for the second highest number of passengers after Britomart.

The next major step will be the City Rail Link, Mr Lowrie says, which the council hopes will take seven to eight years.

"After electrification there's nothing small planned. Auckland has already updated most of the stations; next up is the Rail Link which is kind of like the spaghetti junction of the rail link – without it, nothing works properly."

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