Wellington trains running again after transport chaos

12:12 pm on 4 July 2019

Wellington's regional council is defending the way it dealt with widespread transport disruption in the capital yesterday, when a train derailment ended in traffic gridlock.

The disruption happened after a freight train went off the tracks near the central station on Tuesday night stopping commuter trains on the Hutt Valley and Kapiti lines the next morning. Thousands were forced to take their cars, bringing roads to a standstill.

Drivers said the evening commute took three times as long as usual and one motorist said they'd moved only 800m in 45 minutes in the central city around 5pm.

Rail users are being told to expect minor delays for the rest of the week, while tracks damaged when a train derailed on Tuesday are repaired, and speed restrictions remain on a section of track. The operator, Metlink, advised commuters to check before they traveled this morning.

Wellington's regional council said it simply wasn't possible to arrange alternative transport for 20,000 stranded commuters at a moment's notice.

The council's sustainable transport committee chair, Barbara Donaldson, said staff and crews did a fantastic job sorting out a terrible problem.

"KiwiRail worked all through the night, our staff were onto it really early trying to warn everybody and get those messages out," she said.

Metlink was left scrambling for buses to cover the morning peak, its general manager Greg Pollock told Checkpoint.

Just 10 buses were available - with the total passenger capacity of one train - and they got stuck in traffic as many more commuters took to their cars, a Transdev spokesperson said.

Even though there were nearly 500 buses on the daily timetable, Ms Donaldson said it would not have been fair to divert them.

"[Bus users] are very upset when there are any bus cancellations, so we knew we had a rail problem - it was best to keep the problem there rather than disrupt the bus network as well.

"We managed to find a few spare buses but obviously we don't keep buses waiting in case something goes wrong... it would be very expensive."

Traffic backed up in Wellington after train wagons derailed yesterday.

Traffic backed up on the central Wellington highway. Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

Ms Donaldson said the regional council needed to work with KiwiRail and the government to fix ongoing resilience problems at Wellington's train station.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is investigating why the freight train derailed, the second such incident in six years and the sixth investigation into safety problems including near misses at the station since 2013.

Work to improve track layouts is scheduled to begin next year, but KiwiRail said that would not have prevented Tuesday's derailment which happened at a different part of the station near the freight yard entrance.

Former regional council chair Dame Fran Wilde - who leads the Wellington Lifelines Group which monitors vulnerabilities in the city's essential infrastructure - said the train derailed in part of an area known as the Thorndon Throat - a bottleneck of rail and roads, electricity and water supply lines.

"Basically, there's nothing we can do about our topography and there's nothing we can do about our geography.

"We just have to prepare for the fact these things will happen," she said.

She said people should seek out carpooling options such as on [www.smarttravel.org.nz smartravel.org] to avoid the traffic problems commuters had to endure yesterday.

'Wake up call'

Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford said the transport chaos should be "a wake-up call".

Mr Milford said the region's roading, rail and bus corridors lacked "resilience" with a limited number of roads and rail lines.

"We're fragile because of our geography, we're fragile because of under-investment in a lot of different areas and this needs to be recognised by local and central government and we need to do something about it.

"We are going to be playing catchup with the investment, but it does need to happen. It's crazy that in the 21st century, our capital city has to put up with this."

He said the problem was the government had deferred solutions - including key elements in the Let's Get Wellington Moving project - until "well into the future".

"We need the two tunnels and the grade separation at the Basin as soon as possible, not in 20 or 30 years.

"The Petone to Grenada link would have made a big difference [yesterday], but that's been put on hold until the end of next decade, so that part of the transport network remains vulnerable, as we also saw earlier this year with a slip on Highway 2."