1 Jun 2023

Auckland Transport stands firm on refusal to set up train service for northwest

5:56 pm on 1 June 2023
No train service for Huapai residents

Eight retired ADL cars sit at Glenbrook Vintage Railways station despite Huapai residents pleading for passenger rail. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

Auckland Transport is refusing to provide northwestern suburb Huapai with a passenger rail service to the city despite having some rail cars at its disposal.

Eight ADL passenger cars were decommissioned from the Papakura to Pukekohe line in August 2022.

For supporters of the service to Huapai, the sudden availability of the trains seemed like the answer to their decade-long fight for better public transport.

Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) chair Niall Robertson was adamant the dream could become a reality if action was taken soon enough.

He told RNZ residents' pleas for better public transport have been ignored for too long.

"We're really neglecting the people of the northwest when we could just repurpose these ADL rail cars to run between Swanson and Huapai."

No train service for Huapai residents - train campaigner Niall Robertson

Niall Robertson says northwest residents have been neglected by Auckland Transport. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

The eight rail cars sit at Glenbrook Vintage railway station gathering dust, rust, and graffiti.

At least three of them could be fixed and up and running within a year, Robertson said, but if work did not start on them immediately it might be too late.

"If these rail cars are not repurposed by about this time next year, it will be very expensive to repurpose them. At the moment they are very serviceable, but I wouldn't leave them too long."

No train service for Huapai residents

Some of the trains are being subjected to graffiti. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

Huapai already has a railway installed and a platform station sitting idle.

Robertson said with all the infrastructure already in place, it seemed like a no-brainer.

"We're not asking for a lot. We're just asking for trains to run on a railway that exists and stop at stations that exist."

Auckland Transport has investigated the proposal before, general manager of integrated networks Mark Lambert said, but the farthest the idea went was a trial.

Multiple reviews had gone into the concept and each one showed the extension would be an expensive endeavour, he said.

"There's quite a significant capital cost to upgrade the track, bring the existing diesel trains out of retirement, and potentially refurbish and upgrade those."

While he acknowledged the apparent convenience, it was "not a priority due to constrained funding".

The future of the northwest was not in trains, he said.

"The proposal that we're looking at in the longer term for the northwest would be bus priority bus lanes which are already being implemented on State Highway 16 to allow buses to operate outside of congestion."

Mark Lambert - Auckland Transport Chief Transport Services Officer

Mark Lambert favours buses ahead of trains for Huapai residents. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

'Set up to fail' - advocate

A passenger train service to Kumeū, Waimauku and Helensville was scrapped after it was trialled for less than 18 months in 2009.

Lambert was the customer services general manager of then Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) at the time of the closure.

He was repeating the same sentiments he has offered now - that the service was not fiscally feasible.

"To date an average of 43 passengers per day have travelled in total on the three daily services," he said. "The subsidy paid by the ratepayer and taxpayer per person per journey for this service is $45.72."

It was not from lack of effort, he said.

"A great deal of time, effort, promotion and research was put in by ARTA towards making this service successful."

However, Greenpeace climate advocate and former city councillor Christine Rose was one of the supporters of the trial.

"I was a user of that service, and I can attest to the trauma of being stuck in trains that broke down and badly managed connections."

It was a result of poor management she said.

"Overall, it was a very bad service that was set up to fail and sometimes it's used as an excuse why we can't have trains now."

Decision-makers were stuck in their ways, she said. "All we need is political will and a budget."

While the diesel trains were not an ideal solution, she said, it was more efficient than the congestion that Kumeū and Huapai experienced in rush hour traffic.

Current infrastructure not adequate - residents

No train service for Huapai residents

Hundreds of new homes are being built in the suburb, many of them close to an existing railway station. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

A current housing development in Huapai will see 1200 homes in the suburb once it is complete, with many directly next to the railway station.

The Auckland Council said it expected the suburb's population to grow by 2000 people in five years and double to 10,000 by the 2030s.

Rose said in its current state its transport infrastructure could not even support the people it has now.

"The development of the area without viable public transport alternatives is car based ... full of congestion and inefficient."

Other residents agreed.

"We think twice about going out anytime of the day, any day of the week," one said.

Another said their morning commute to work was only 10 kilometres, yet the car ride took 40 minutes.

"It's chocker especially around [Huapai] area," said a third. "I actually feel bad for people that have to commute to work because I've heard some people have to leave before 6am."

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