11 Jul 2023

Waka Kotahi temporarily bans Te Huia train from operating in Auckland

4:50 pm on 11 July 2023
Te Huia train

Te Huia train. Photo: RNZ / Gill Bonnett

The Te Huia train has been temporarily banned from operating in Auckland following two incidents.

In a statement, Waka Kotahi said it had issued the prohibition notice to KiwiRail, preventing Te Huia passenger rail service from entering the Auckland metro area because of recent Signal Passed at Danger (SPAD) incidents.

The notice meant Te Huia's route, which usually ended at The Strand in Parnell, would terminate at Papakura from this afternoon.

Buses would replace the trains within the Auckland metro area.

Waka Kotahi said two SPAD incidents had been reported by KiwiRail involving Te Huia this year as it travelled between Hamilton and Auckland.

"A SPAD A event is defined as an incident when the train driver has failed to obey a red signal and has entered a section of track where there is the potential for conflict with another rail service.

"Evidence shows that SPAD A events can create a significant risk to public safety and are potential precursors to a collision.

"The most recent SPAD A incident involving Te Huia was recorded on the morning of Monday 10 July."

Waka Kotahi director of land transport Neil Cook said the service had been banned from the Auckland area to maintain safety of the rail network.

"We understand that this will cause disruption for people using this service, and we don't take decisions like this lightly, but we consider that prompt action is crucial to ensure the ongoing safety of everyone using the Auckland metro rail network," Cook said.

"KiwiRail has assured us that they are taking urgent action to prevent further incidents. The prohibition order will be lifted by Waka Kotahi after KiwiRail has provided satisfactory evidence of the measures taken to ensure that the safety risks have been adequately mitigated."

Cook told Checkpoint the agency found out about the incidents through KiwiRail.

"There's a requirement on KiwiRail to notify the regulator of any incidents like this. In the case of the Auckland incident we were also notified by Auckland One Rail, the commuter train operator."

He said the incidents in Hamilton and Penrose were different, but probably due to the same mistake.

"In essence they both come down to elements of human error and in the case of the most recent case, that had to do with the environment they were in as well."

Cook said the Te Huia train that crossed a red light in Penrose could have crashed into a busy commuter train.

"The first incident was probably the more serious or had the chance to be the more serious one because of the risk of conflict with an Auckland commuter train."

The train could have been carrying more than 100 passengers at the time, he said.

"Possibly more depending on the service, and obviously the Auckland commuter service carry a bit more than that."

The action has been taken to maintain safety on the rail network, he said.

"The pattern there of passing those signals when they shouldn't be passed is where the concern is.

"We are looking to work with KiwiRail to make sure those risks are mitigated to the extent that the can and should be for in the interest of public safety."

'KiwiRail apologises for disruption'

KiwiRail executive general manager of operations Paul Ashton said it took all safety incidents seriously and was treating this situation with the highest priority.

Ashton said the first incident was three weeks ago when Te Huia passed a stop signal near Penrose.

The "minor incident" on Monday, while the train carried no passengers, saw it overrun a signal north of Hamilton.

Ashton said KiwiRail commenced an investigation into the first incident, which is nearing completion.

An Electronic Train Protection (ETP) system on Te Huia was installed.

"We realise the disruption this may cause for our passengers and we apologise to them and to Waikato Regional Council," Ashton said.

"For the rest of this week, there will be bus replacements between The Strand, Puhinui and Papakura, and customers will not be charged for this bus replacement service.

"Next week, we will be running the service to Papakura. Customers will then need to connect into an Auckland Transport service using a HOP Card to continue, as they did when Te Huia first launched in April 2021."

Ashton said Waka Kotahi was requiring European Train Control System (ETCS) technology be installed if Te Huia was to continue operating in the Auckland metro area.

It was a safety system used by Auckland Transport trains which caused them to slow when approaching a red signal.

Ashton said KiwiRail planned to install it in "due course", but it would take more than 12 months to complete.

KiwiRail said it had an approved safety case for running Te Huia and it was working closely with the rail regulator to resolve the issue.

Waikato Regional Councillor and deputy chairperson of the Future Proof Public Transport Subcommittee Angela Strange said the situation was "bitterly disappointing".

That was "considering recently released performance results that showed Te Huia was on track to meet two-year patronage targets.

"It's extremely frustrating that we are now back to stopping the service in Papakura. We recognise that this will impact our loyal passengers who rely on this service and those planning to try it for the first time."